I first read Larissa MacFarquhar’s New Yorker article on Aaron Swartz too quickly. But it doesn’t skim well. I found that encouraging.
I finally sat down to read it thoroughly a couple of days ago, and liked it very much. It’s beautifully written. More important, she does not have an hypothesis to bolster or an explanation to flog. She begins and ends with long quotes from the people around Aaron, without commenting on them. She is not arguing that he killed himself because he was clinically depressed — with the political subtext that comes from that reading — and she is not arguing that he killed himself because grownups overly burdened him, or even because of prosecutorial overreach. Larissa lets Aaron, his friends, and his family speak for themselves.
You come out of the piece with the idea that Aaron was complex, and that life wasn’t easy for him. The writer of the article’s subhead over-simplifies this into the sort of simple Theory of Aaron that the article itself avoids: “Aaron Swartz was brilliant and beloved. But the people who knew him best saw a darker side.” The article is more about complexity than darkness. It ties Aaron’s path from idea to cause to his moral commitments and to his many-cornered personality. Given the impossibility of capturing any human life in words, it does a good job.
But in the days after reading it, I’ve been bothered by something that Larissa leaves out. You don’t come out of it with a sense of what Aaron accomplished or of the impact of those accomplishments. I understand that Larissa was not attempting to write the definitive biography, and that she was more interested in exploring Aaron’s character in the context of those who loved him. But I’m afraid that a reader who comes to her article without knowing what Aaron actually did will leave with the impression that Aaron was too feckless and inconstant to translate his passions into achievement.
If Larissa decides to turn her article into a book, it will be important to bring readers to understand the maturity of Aaron’s achievements. Without that, a portrait of Aaron — no matter how open and beautiful — is necessarily misleading.