Weekend Reading

Gitmo, Class Privilege, Studs Terkel, and Tom Verlaine

There’s still time for some summer reading, with works by Elise Swain, Jesse Barron, Ben Welsh, and Dave Morse

“What Prison?” by Elise Swain in The Intercept

‘Censorship Has Never Been Worse at Guantánamo Bay’

The arc of Elise Swain’s life has long tended toward a visit to Guantánamo. Presently The Intercept’s photo editor, when she attended the School of Visual Arts, Swain distinguished herself as a particularly political member of her graduating class in 2015. “I remember doing a project on the Senate torture report when that came out,” she told The Fine Print. But the roots of her fervor stretch back further. “Being critical of the United States’s human rights abuses globally defined my life in a weird way,” she said. “It may have been because my own grandfather was in the CIA. I was particularly conscious of what that agency was continuing to do because of that family awareness that horrible mistakes had always been made by the CIA.”

Her work at the investigative outlet led to friendships with former Guantánamo detainees. At first, she was trying to coordinate a photo shoot with one of them. “We had a phone call that was friendly. It was just like, ‘Hey, let me walk you through this process,’” she recalled. “It just so happened that when we hit it off, I realized there’s a lot of stories to be done of where these former prisoners are now. So, some of these people I reached out to intending to write a story about them and keep them as a source, like Sabri al-Qurashi in Kazakhstan. And then some of them, like Mohamedou Salahi, I literally called just because people were like, you guys would get along. It was, ‘Why don’t you guys just shoot the shit? Because you’re both funny.’”

So, when Swain finally made it to the naval base, those friends could act as guides, over text, with a very different agenda than the military flacks assigned to keep a close eye on her. At first, she thought she’d walk away from the trip with a fine art project. “I had seen what The New York Times photo essay had been. That was almost like a travel brochure: Here’s all the activities, here are all the fun things that you can do at Guantánamo. The intention at first was to almost parody that. And then, instead, I found something completely different,” she said. “Of course, in my role as a photo editor, as well, I wanted to have some images of the base that we could use in continuing coverage. Anything from the detention function of the base would have been relevant to continued coverage of anything related to the prison and releases from the prison, which I continue to cover. And so when they told me that Camp X-Ray wasn’t available to be photographed, I really did slowly descend into madness.”

While consistently emphasizing the horrific human rights abuses that have gone on at Guantánamo, the photo essay Swain ended up producing looks like a twisted travelogue. Blocked from photographing anything significant, she turned her lens elsewhere. She writes in her piece, “In truth, I had already started photographing out of spite. The prison might not exist here, but the ugly, cheaply manufactured urban sprawl of late-capitalist America did.”

“I think of the photos of the chair in this terrifyingly empty concrete room, the dead crabs littering the ground, the Blackwater logo graffiti, the red lights at the marina,” she said. “It was just these spooky moments that were very uncanny.”

Her accompanying text is full of surprisingly funny moments, none more so than her bristling conversations with the public affairs officer Lt. Cmdr. Adam Cole, who at one point tells her, “I hate you.” “The whole relationship between me and Cole was largely in jest,” she said. “It’s a very lonely experience being there, and you’re stuck with this military guy the whole time, so if you don’t make him your friend and have fun and joke around together, what else is there to do?”

There were times when Swain’s closeness with the former detainees made Cole genuinely nervous. “There were all of these really strange moments with the military where they were describing to me operational security concerns, and when I was like, ‘Why are you so worried about this particular thing?’ They were like, ‘Because what if there was an Al Qaeda attack here?’” she recalled. “They were truly afraid that Al Qaeda members would come to Guantánamo Bay and try to breach the prison, which I just thought was the most hilarious, farcical thing I’ve ever heard. So then, a couple of times, I did start to mess with them. I’d say, ‘Oh, you know what? Let me just text Al Qaeda right now.’”

“Guilty Pleasures” by Jesse Barron in Bookforum

‘Nick McDonell casts a cool eye on his wealthy milieu’

When longtime Bookforum contributor Jesse Barron heard that Penske Media Corporation’s purchase of Artforum would lead to the demise of Bookforum, he was perturbed and upset. “Bookforum is one of the only U.S.-based magazines where people take book criticism seriously, and it’s extremely fun to read. And it does all of that without breaking the bank,” he told The Fine Print. “It would not have been super expensive for them to keep Bookforum running, especially because Bookforum ran on the back of Artforum’s printing infrastructure. What it shows me is that these guys underestimated how easy it would have been to gain some cultural capital for themselves and some credibility at a minimum of economic cost.” When his editor, David O’Neill, told him Bookforum would be resurrected in partnership with The Nation, he was relieved and excited to contribute again. “I knew that if it was back, I wanted to write for it,” he said.

Quiet Street caught Barron’s eye while flipping through a catalog, trying to choose something to review for the return issue. He’d heard of the writer, Nick McDonell, the son of former Esquire, Us Weekly, and Sports Illustrated editor Terry McDonell, and the prospect of this scion of the one percent wrestling with his inheritance seemed promising. “McDonell is the epitome of the institutions he criticizes in Quiet Street, doing what they say on the tin. He’s an accomplished writer; he’s written novels; he undertook dangerous war reporting from the American wars in the Middle East; and he did all of it with the kind of self-effacing grace that is a component of the class training you receive at the institutions that he will later take to task,” Barron said. “He finds kind of late in his career, to steal a phrase from Andrea Long Chu, that there’s a pebble in his hoof.” Whereas, at 21, McDonell blithely told New York magazine’s Ariel Levy of his nepotistic path that “everyone tells me this is how it works,” now he’s disturbed by the inherent inequality.

In the review, Barron concludes that McDonell doesn’t successfully confront the consequences of that inequality, even on his own terms. “McDonell is trying to write from two distinct urges: to confess his own feelings and to expose the lives of others. The confessional material is the strongest because McDonell is willing to deny himself the protections of privacy,” he writes. “But when McDonell switches from getting something out of his system to trying to expose the system, I occasionally feel the edge of his perception going dull. Exposure requires a different animating force than confession: you have to be willing to piss people off.”

Barron didn’t exactly take a scorched earth approach in the review, either. “There’s a time when you want to be mean and catty and dismissive and bitchy and cruel. I think that has its place. If you read the novels of Edward St Aubyn, those novels are incredibly icy and vicious in a certain way, but there’s a reason for the viciousness — because those novels are animated by honestly earned malice toward his class cohort,” Barron said. “But in a review of a guy’s 150-page book where he’s trying to reckon with some of these issues, you could get maybe 500 words of mileage by just making fun of the idea of a rich person trying to write self-aware autobiography. But I don’t know how much ground you would ultimately cover.”

Other factors contributed to his taking a more nuanced approach. “The whole problem with reviewing a book like this, if it’s one white, six-foot-tall Harvard graduate reviewing the work of another — I don’t know how tall McDonell is, maybe he’s taller than me, maybe he’s six-foot-three, maybe he’s six-foot-four — is that while it would be easy to be snarky, and make fun of it, it would be utterly disingenuous because I myself belong to the same system that McDonell is criticizing, although I’m probably a few rungs below where he is.” He subtly tips his hat to this difficulty with a parenthetical that reads, “I have my own internal drama about having gone to Harvard, but I would never pretend the gym wasn’t great.”

That doesn’t mean Barron wasn’t tempted to get a little mean in his first crack at the review. “There were sentences in the draft that I felt stepped over the line,” he said. “They were cheap shots and, in this context, he may be a kettle, but I’m not not a pot.”

“Parents of School Children Talk About Integration and Busing,” Studs Terkel Archive Podcast

‘Selections from the WFMT collection of Terkel’s radio interviews, delivered several times each week. An unofficial feed.’

Turning the legendary journalist and broadcaster Studs Terkel into a podcaster was a pandemic project for Reuters news applications editor Ben Welsh. “I just found myself sucked down the rabbit hole when I found the WFMT archive of The Studs Terkel Program,” he told The Fine Print. “I wanted to share this with other people and one way I thought I could do that is just by curating a little bit and packaging it for distribution outside the site so people could find it where they’re looking for stuff to listen to in their podcast players.” Since December 2020, he’s sent recordings from Terkel’s radio show — which ran from 1952 to 1997 — down the feed. Among the most scintillating are the interviews with magazine writers, including Dorothy Parker, Nora Ephron, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter Thompson, who, in his interview, took a shot at Partisan Review as “one of those atavistic reviews.”

The latest episode is a little different. It is from 1981 and features white working-class Chicago parents discussing their decision to bus their kids to integrated magnet schools. It’s a real time capsule, but what stands out, as with Terkel’s interviews with boldface names, are the moments where Terkel is arrested by a rush of curiosity. At one point, he asks the parents what their own parents think of the schools they send their kids to. A father, whose voice sounds very much like the hyper-educated talk show host Dick Cavett, responds: “My mother is an Iowa farmer, retired, and was here when they first went. In fact, she took them to school the first day, and her picture was in the paper. The experience in the Iowa fields is quite different. It’s really an all-white kind of world out there. So I think that her amazement is that somehow we’re able to make a decent life for ourselves in Chicago at all.

Terkel sounds momentarily stunned. “You’re from small town Iowa?” he asks gently. There’s a note of wonder. “Studs would just get gassed up and start pulling on a thread,” said Welsh, who also grew up in the Iowa country. “One of his stock jokes was, ‘Curiosity couldn’t kill this cat,’ and you see it. He follows his interest and it shows a huge trust in the audience. There’s a way in which a lot of podcasting today can be a little pat, or highly structured, and he didn’t really try to do that at all, for better or worse.”

Those recordings where Terkel can’t simply roll past his own reactions are among Welsh’s favorites. “There’s one where there was some hippie event in Lincoln Park that was called the Be-In. Studs goes out there with a microphone and just starts interviewing people, all these stoned hippies. He’s just asking them, ‘Why are you here? Why are you here?’ It’s hilarious,” he said. “In the middle of it, there’s this moment where one of the hippies recognizes him and is like, ‘Wait, you’re Studs Terkel, you’re on the radio.’ And Studs hates it, because he never wants it to be about him. The only times I really caught him being irritated is when people turn the questions back on him, which shows what a real reporter he is. He gets to ask the questions.”

Better Read Than Dead

‘Thank you to all who came out to our Tom Verlaine event. It was a whirlwind of a weekend and I am not going to answer individual questions until I buy back four nights of sleep’

Better Read Than Dead is far from the biggest bookstore in New York, but the vibes have always been right. Started by Dave Morse and Matty D’Angelo as a folding table operation around Bushwick in 2012, they moved into their flagship store, a converted shipping container near the Myrtle/Broadway J, in 2014. “Our biggest fear is somebody pulling up with a flatbed truck and stealing it,” Morse told The Fine Print. They opened a second shop inside Burly Coffee in Bed Stuy in 2019. Their can-do, fuck-it, DIY sensibility is a big part of the reason Better Read Than Dead, in collaboration with DC’s Capitol Hill Books, ended up in charge of selling the 50,000 book collection Television frontman Tom Verlaine left scattered in storage lockers across the city when he died of prostate cancer in January.

As an avid book collector, Verlaine was a familiar face to Morse. “If you sell used books in New York and you do what a lot of us do, which is go to the Strand pretty often to pour through their dollar racks, he was always there. He was always very kind and helpful and a true head,” he recalled. “He was always handing us books that he found that he thought we might be able to use. He was doing that for almost everyone that he saw with any regularity. I would pass him a book on African drumming and he would pass me a Murakami novel.”

Verlaine’s estate had one big stipulation in choosing the book dealers for his collection. “Their biggest priority was finding dealers who were willing to take on all 50,000 books, which most understandably aren’t. We worked out a plan with them where we could sort and piecemeal it out, because almost nobody has the infrastructure to take on all 50,000 at once. So we’ve been knocking storage spaces down one by one,” said Morse. “There’s so much stuff I’ve never seen before. I feel like any time we get somebody’s library, we learn a lot about them. The more I dug into his books, I was like, ‘Oh, he didn’t have a stray UFO book. He had probably 12 boxes of UFO books,’ or [books on] radiation from cell phones. Anything he was interested in, he was able to accumulate in pretty sizable bulk. He had almost half a storage locker of books on China.”

On Saturday and Sunday, August 25-26, they organized a pop-up sale of just a few thousand of Verlaine’s books out of two garages in Bed Stuy. One garage was priced at $5 a book, the other at $10. This reporter happily listened to several episodes of the Studs Terkel Archive in the long and enthusiastic line. In the garages, most of the music books were beyond our expertise. Still, the preponderance of books by and about Jack Kerouac, Michel Houellebecq, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Wyndham Lewis was striking. “We didn’t quite know what to expect and, for the most part, it went off without a hitch, except for the general unpleasantness of standing in line,” Morse said. “We will hopefully be doing a few more events that will also be in person and hopefully with maybe different bandwidth for the amount of people that can show up than an impromptu garage sale.”

Did the dealer pick out anything for himself? “I took home a cookbook,” Morse said. “There’s a lot of stuff that I hope I can still find that I set aside for myself, but at a certain point when you’re just drowning in books, Scrooge McDuck style, you stop being so precious about any one find.”