Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians


By Tara Isabella Burton

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 An exploration into the curation of the self in Western civilization from Da Vinci to Kim Kardashian.

In a technologically-saturated era where nearly everything can be effortlessly and digitally reproduced, we're all hungry to carve out our own unique personalities, our own bespoke personae, to stand out and be seen. As the forces of social media and capitalism collide, and individualism becomes more important than ever across a wide array of industries,  "branding ourselves" or actively defining our selves for others has become the norm. Yet, this phenomenon is not new. In Self-Made, Tara Isabella Burton shows us how we arrived at this moment of fervent personal-branding.

As attitudes towards religion, politics and society evolved, our sense of self did as well, moving from a collective to individual mindset. Through a series of chronological biographical essays on famous (and infamous) "self-creators" in the modern Western world, from the Renassiance to the Enlightenment to modern capitalism and finally to our present moment of mass media, Burton examines the theories and forces behind our never-ending need to curate ourselves. Through a vivid cast of characters and an engaging mix of cultural and historical commentary, we learn how the personal brand has come to be. 

  • “Ranging from Aristotle to OnlyFans by way of the Marquis de Sade and Frederick Douglass, Tara Isabella Burton delights, infuriates, and instructs while offering some of the sharpest and most insightful social commentary being written today. This is a book you will not forget.”
    Walter Russell Mead, author of The Arc of a Covenant
  • “Ms. Burton is right and brave to surmise that hollow self-making offers the wrong kind of answers to the modern bourgeois or digital peasant who wants to live a happy or meaningful life.”
    Wall Street Journal
  • “Self-Made takes the reader on an incredible journey that begins in the Renaissance and ends with the Kardashians, Donald Trump, and Silicon Valley’s extropians, tracing the peculiarly modern phenomenon of people who make themselves the objects of their life’s work. It is both revelatory and a warning about the ways that focus on the self distorts our individual lives and the broader society.”
    Francis Fukuyama, author of Liberalism and its Discontents
  • “This funny, startling, insightful story of the selfie, from Dürer to the Kardashians, is a must-read if you want to understand how we reinvent ourselves every time we reveal ourselves.”
    Peter Pomerantsev, author of This Is Not Propaganda
  • “Looking around at the strange terrain of what’s now American politics, religion, culture, and media, almost everyone is asking, ‘What happened?’ and ‘What's next?’ This book tells us the story behind those questions. Those who wonder why almost every aspect of life seems to be, at best, a reality television series and, at worst, a dark science-fiction drama will need this important work. This book will shift the conversation at perhaps just the right time.”
    Russell Moore, editor in chief, Christianity Today
  • “Burton is that rare cultural critic who delivers insight with sass and wears her deep knowledge of history and philosophy with a lightness and grace. A dazzling cast of characters struts across these pages, but Burton is always fully in control; every case study and example accretes to build her argument, for we are not merely self-stylists but shapeshifters, not just makers, but gods.”
    Marina Benjamin, author of Insomnia and Middlepause
  • “Burton’s thoughtful, beautifully written book charts the engrossing history of the self-made man (and woman) from the genius’s Renaissance to present-day reality TV stars. Philosophical, ethical, and pragmatic by turns, Burton urgently interrogates the culturally dominant myths of individualism and self-realization, asking what we lose when we gain what we think we really want: when we make ourselves into gods.” 
    Carolyne Larrington, author of The Norse Myths
  • “In the spirit of Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright Sided, Burton delivers a fascinating intellectual and cultural history of our never-ending quest to reinvent ourselves. She masterfully balances high and low culture, ranging from Renaissance sculptors and Parisian dandies to American hucksters and Instagram selfies. Self Made clears through the fog of our current moment and lets us see the methods behind our collective madness. An essential read for our era of Late-Stage Everything.”
    Jamie Wheal, author of international bestsellers Recapture the Rapture and Stealing Fire
  • “A wide-ranging study of self-creation… [Isabella-Burton] concludes that our search for self-definition is ultimately a search for what it means to be human: vulnerable and inextricably interconnected. A thoughtful, well-grounded cultural history.” 
  • “With clarity and authority, Burton sheds light on how the self-made indulge in the profitable ‘fantasy of selling yourself’ and provide an escape from reality for their followers. It’s an eye-opener.”
    Publishers Weekly
  • “It’s an important book, and Burton is one the most theologically attuned social critics writing today.”
    Mosaic Magazine
  • “[Burton] interrogates how cultural icons invent themselves as aspirational figures and what their tactics reveal about changing social mores. She is able to fit a variety of movements into her analysis: nineteenth-century dandyism, social Darwinism, self-help in all its iterations… entertaining.”
    Library Journal
  • “A fast-moving train of a book…Burton is a confident conductor.” 
    The New York Times
  • “A fun, insightful romp through an identity parade of geniuses, dandies, charlatans, moguls and film stars. It’s a journey that culminates in the billions of us with smartphone cameras and social media accounts… we’re all now self-makers, whether we like it or not – and this witty, skeptical book is the thought-provoking story of how we got here.”
    The Guardian
  • "Burton writes with verve."
    The Boston Globe
  • “Keenly conscious of both the burdens and blessings of self-invention, Burton refuses to give readers the comfort of either progressive triumphalism or traditionalist despondency. Self-invention is a dangerous game, which can easily go awry. But whether it is appealing or appalling, it is our legacy as moderns, which none of us can entirely escape. It’s hard to say who needs to hear this message more: the starry-eyed, would-be ‘influencers’ of Generation Z, or the disgruntled elders who scorn them.”
    Law & Liberty
  • “Burton’s timely cultural history shows what is at stake in our attempts to reinvent ourselves…Throughout her gripping account Burton homes in on the tensions at the heart of all self-making acts: between authenticity and artificiality, and between the self that is given and the self that is desired.”
    Times Literary Supplement

On Sale
Jun 27, 2023
Page Count
288 pages

Tara Isabella Burton

About the Author

Tara Isabella Burton is a contributing editor at the American Interest, a columnist at Religion News Service, and the former staff religion reporter at She has written on religion and secularism for National Geographic, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and more, and holds a doctorate in theology from Oxford. She is also the author of two novels Social Creature (Doubleday, 2018) and The World Cannot Give (Simon and Schuster, 2022), and one prior work of non-fiction Strange Rites (PublicAffairs, 2020). She lives in New York, NY. 

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