Round-Down: The Torture Report Book

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On December 30th, 2014, acclaimed independent publisher Melville House released a print copy of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s “Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program”—also known as the Senate Torture Report. Though the material is in the public domain (has been since December 9th, is only a summary of the actual several-thousand-page Report—which remains classifiedand runs at about five-hundred pages) the publisher sold out of its first print run, a considerable fifty thousand copies, that very same day.

When I first heard this news, I paused. I mouthed to myself, possibly even said aloud, “Holy crap.” I hadn’t heard of something like this happening before—this sort of treatment and release. I didn’t even quite know what to make of it. But soon I couldn’t stop thinking about the role of the print book at large, our pledged allegiance to physical copy, the responsibility of a publisher, and the ineluctable importance of vision—because it takes a seriousness of vision to do something like this.

In The New York Times’ coverage of this, Alexandra Alter mentions that this approach to re-release is not an isolated case. “Other government reports,” she writes, “like the 9/11 Commission Report and the infamous Starr Report detailing President Bill Clinton’s sex scandal, have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.” So it’s not necessarily a surprise that this report, so momentous in its public release, has garnered so much attention, and so quickly. The Times also aptly captured the Report in labeling it “a portrait of depravity that’s hard to comprehend.” A mere fifty pages in—pushing past the many blacked-out words and phrases, the tiring lurch of long footnotes—I already found myself overwhelmed by the hard fact of that sentiment.

Having the Report available as a print book, though more accessible, makes the actual document itself no easier to understand—not exactly. It occurs to me, though, that this isn’t the goal. In fact, for its length and density, its cold cruelty, the document in its physical print book form might actually help draw attention to the fact that our work as readers in attempting to comprehend such a report at all is in some way futile. The gravity of this document is in some way beyond our understanding.

What I find most effective and also most unsettling is the thought of this Report placed on household shelves, its seeming invisibility there, nestled between other hardcovers, bespeaking the larger silence we risk in not having this document right before us, in our faces. In the press release, Melville House co-publisher Dennis Johnson mentions a fear shared by those at MH was that “with all the distractions of the holiday season, the report would fade quickly from the news cycle.” The book pushes against the risk of our attention evaporating with the stress of the busy holiday season.

It’s quite the important and powerful idea: that simply repackaging material can make it more accessible and can perhaps make it last—truly last—in the way we need to know and remember it.