Behind the Scenes

Dispatches From Book Leave, Part 3

Hundreds of index cards, 20,000 words, and nine months down.

Aaron Swartz.
The book isn’t really about Aaron Swartz.

Photo by Noah Berger/Reuters.

Slate correspondent Justin Peters is on leave this year while he writes a book based on his February 2013 Slate profile of the Internet activist Aaron Swartz. He has been sending regular progress reports to friends, family, readers, and others interested in getting an inside look at the book-writing process. Here’s the third installment of his updates, sent in May. Read the first installment and second installment here. 

Hi everyone,

Your pal Justin Peters here with another update on The Idealists, the book I’m writing on Aaron Swartz, copyright, open access, free culture, and the secrets of close-up coin magic. Boy, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? I know, I know, I’ve missed you too. Especially you. Yes, you. I’ve missed you most of all. (Long, awkward pause.) Anyway! I know it’s been a couple months since my last update, and I’m sure you all have lots of questions, like “What’s the atomic number for zinc?” and “Can I borrow the car Friday night?” (The answers, respectively, are “30” and “Ask your father.”) But you probably have some more salient questions, too. Let’s take them one by one.

How’s the book coming?

Er, next question? Ha ha, no, it’s coming fine. I’ve got about 20,000 solid words right now, and at my current rate of production will have about 20,000 more in three weeks’ time, which will put me right around the halfway point as summer approaches and “crunch time” begins.

Wait, you’ve been working on this book for like nine months now, and you only have 20,000 words? What’s wrong with you?

Geez, tough crowd. I thought I’d be further along, too. But there are mitigating factors, I swear. For one thing, I’ve finally hit puberty, which has really been a distraction. For another thing, as I’ve mentioned before, there’s a lot more that goes into writing a book than actually writing the book. There’s the outlining, and the researching, and the revising, and the purchasing of index cards, and—

Index cards?

Oh, my, yes. I suspect I am single-handedly keeping the index-card industry alive at this point. I am outlining the entire book, 200-word chunk by 200-word chunk, on hundreds and hundreds of 3 x 5 index cards. (The cards are bright pink, which I find very soothing for some reason.) The index cards are just for outlining, though. All of the actual book-writing is done in longhand, with a pencil, on loose-leaf notebook paper. (Yes, everything’s fine here in 1974. Why do you ask?)

I didn’t ask.

OK, sheesh! Look, it’s no secret that I’m not where I thought I’d be at this point, but that’s more a function of my unreasonable initial expectations than anything else. For example: When I was blogging twice daily for Slate, I was wildly productive, and while some posts were better than others, all of them were more-or-less polished and professional. So, naturally, when I started working on the book, I figured that my productivity would transfer. “Hey, book-writing isn’t that different from blogging,” I thought. “I’ll be able to cruise right through this and knock out a draft in a couple months!”

This did not happen. As it turns out, book-writing is very, very different from blogging—at least when it comes to the sort of book I’m trying to write. If I was just going to write a quickie biography of Aaron Swartz, then, sure, I’d probably already have a draft finished. But as I’ve mentioned in previous updates, this book really isn’t about Aaron Swartz.

(Outraged gasp) What?????

Well, I mean, he’s definitely the main character. And I’m definitely using his life story as a frame. But on a deeper level the book is about the rise of proprietary content over the past 200 years or so, and how copyright statutes have evolved to—


No, it isn’t boring, I promise! At least, not the way I’m writing it. The trick is to focus on the characters instead of the concepts. By centering each chapter on some representative individuals involved in copyright and IP issues throughout the years, and telling their stories in a lively fashion, I can hopefully animate the material in a way that a more abstract approach never could.


OK, fine, you want a sneak preview? Here’s a paragraph I wrote about Noah Webster, the endearingly insecure lexicographer who lobbied hard for America’s first copyright laws:

“Noah Webster was born in 1758, at once 10 years too late and 200 years too soon. He would have made an outstanding Founding Father, if only he’d been old enough, what with his patriotic ardor, his rhetorical gifts, and his lifelong interest in telling his fellow citizens what was best for them. He would have thrived on the Internet, too, with its core constituency of strident, insecure nerds; would have found it the perfect platform for his special talents like networking, pedantry, and passing judgment. But Webster missed his moment, and though he made out all right in the end, he nevertheless spent most of his life estranged from his era, chasing the acclaim and acceptance that would surely have been his but for bad timing.”

Nice. Got any more?

Sure, here’s another paragraph on a 19th-century literary gadfly named Cornelius Mathews, an international-copyright advocate and a principal in the “Young America” movement:

“By all accounts, Cornelius Mathews had much the same effect on New York literary circles that flatulence has on an airless room, the difference being that flatulence eventually goes away. A non-practicing lawyer and a writer of bad books, Mathews was utterly convinced of his own genius despite abundant evidence to the contrary, and he spent much of the 1840s singing his own praises in shrill, unmodulated tones. His other great passion was international copyright, a cause that he discredited by virtue of his own association with it. Mathews was an outspoken aesthetic nationalist, convinced that an international copyright law would help speed the development of a homegrown American literature, but his ceaseless moralizing on the topic only encouraged his audiences to violently reject both culture and country. The best that can be said is that he meant well. So did the inventor of the car alarm.”

Take that, Cornelius Mathews, whoever you are!

My sentiments exactly. Anyway, while these paragraphs are still sort of rough, they give you a sense of what I’m going for.

Smarmily disdainful descriptions of obscure historical figures?

Shut up.

Isn’t it about time to start winding this update down?

Yeah, I think so. Expect the next update sometime in June. Until then, don’t hesitate to get in touch with questions or comments or get-rich-quick schemes or anything else. If you no longer want to be on this list, just let me know and I’ll unsubscribe you. And if you know anyone who might enjoy receiving these updates, feel free to forward this along to them! Hope all’s well with all of you. Especially you. Yes, you.

(Long, creepy pause.)

Have a good weekend!