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A sad ps in the Penny Press

By (March 6, 2013) No Comment

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Well, I finally read “Requiem for a Dream,” Larissa MacFarquhar’s New Yorker piece on Aaron Swartz, and I needn’t have been as worried about it as I was – mainly because MacFarquhar is one hell of a good writer (who, I presume, had nothing to do with the ridiculous hyperbole of her piece’s title). It’s true that her article veers too far in the direction of the kind of hagiography we’ve already seen in New York and The New Republic, but she entirely saves it by the strength, the insight, hell even the compassion of her prose – and by her very wise decision to let the people in Aaron Swartz’s life do the bulk of the talking themselves. Her piece opens with a barrage of lengthy quotes – from friends, girlfriends, parents, associates – and it harrowingly ends the same way, with a handful of people obviously still bewildered by their surprised grief (“I know many other folks who are my friends,” writes a friend, “whom I deeply respect whose lives, at my most selfish, I would gladly trade to have Aaron back,”  and perhaps most moving of all, Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard professor and copyright expert who was something of a mentor to Swartz and for whom I’ve felt next to no sympathy in all of this, baldly says, “I am never lost. I’ve never been so lost. I don’t know what to do”).

new yorkerjpgAn extra element of this bewilderment no doubt comes from the very nature of the Internet, as MacFarquhar shrewdly points out:

Prose creates a strong illusion of presence – so strong that it is difficult to destroy it. It is hard to remember that you are reading and not hearing. The illusion is stronger when the prose is online, partly because you are aware that it might be altered or redacted at any moment – the writer may be online, too, as you read it – and partly because the Internet has been around for such a short time that we implicitly assume (as we do not with a book) that the writer of a blog post is still alive.

The portrait that emerges is far more nuanced than any profile I’ve seen so far, and at its heart is a young man who – thanks to the hands-off way his parents refused to raise him (“we wish him only the best and send him all our love” – said of a 17-year-old) – “never learned to do anything he didn’t want to do.” This created as many frustrations as it did freedoms. As aaron swartz by michael gilletteMacFarquhar writes, “If you can do anything you want, then every day becomes an existential problem – an empty space of possibility that has no ceiling but also no walls and no floor.”

I recently lamented the fact that the case of Aaron Swartz will almost certainly prompt a flood of books this time next year, but after reading “Requiem for a Dream” I stand corrected: this article of MacFarquhar’s is so smart and thought-provoking that if she can work up her courage to write such a book, I’ll read it eagerly.