Publishing The Torture Report

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 3 2015 @ 10:01am

The small independent publisher Melville House has done it, turning “a five-hundred-and-twenty-eight-page PDF with the slanted margins and blurred resolution of a Xerox made by a myopic high-school Latin teacher” into a more readable text. Alexandra Schwartz, who stopped by the publisher’s offices, offers a glimpse into the process:

“There’s a lot of reasons why this is insane,” [Melville House co-founder Dennis] Johnson said. “We’ve basically shut down the company to do this reportontorture-320x487 at the busiest time of the year.” The cost of printing alone, he estimated, would run to six figures, a lot of money for such a small, if scrappy, operation to risk. There’s also the possibility that Americans may feel that a book detailing the chronic and grotesque abuses of its government is not in keeping with the Joy to the World spirit. As Johnson put it, “Torture isn’t something you want to carry over the holiday season.”

Still, Johnson has faith in the power of the book as a physical object—“You can still read the first book ever printed, the Gutenberg Bible. I’ve seen it. It still works! The binding has held up!”—and in the power of the written word to move the masses to action. “They really were reading that at Valley Forge,” he said, of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.” “They really did sell a hundred thousand copies of that in what was then a tiny little country. That’s probably the equivalent of—” he paused to do a mental calculation. “Tens of millions of copies today. It really did inspire people to go into revolution!”

The manuscript of the torture report was due to the printer at nine the next morning, a start-to-finish turnaround of less than seventy-two hours. A dozen full-time employees, plus a smattering of freelance proofreaders, copy-editors, interns, and volunteers sat at computers, retyping the government PDF’s tangle of text into Microsoft Word files. Melville House’s office was once a warehouse, and a nose-to-the-grindstone atmosphere—part college library, part North Pole workshop—pervaded the space.

Adam Chandler paid them a visit as well, noting the employees there couldn’t resist giving the report a literary spin:

Place the material before a group of literary minds, and a discourse begins. The report’s reference to Grayson Swigert and Hammond Dunbar, the pseudonyms of the CIA’s contract psychologists who were paid $81 million to help create the interrogation program, recalled “Thomas Pynchon names,” according to some of those gathered.

Other passages in the text were reminiscent of “a John le Carré novel,” “an Oscar Wilde story,” and “a really boring porno.” (The delirious team of about 15 employees and volunteers, which had been working on the project more or less without rest since Tuesday, found this last remark hilarious.)

The report’s linguistic flourishes were noted. “He sang like a tweetie bird. He opened up right away and was cooperative from the outset,” one quote read. One official repeatedly referred to the detainees as “yahoos.”

The first printing of 50,000 sold out in one day, and the publisher is preparing a reprint.