“Larry is very close to being an ideal author,” said John Oakes, founder of OR Books. He was talking about his press’ latest project, The Torture Report by Larry Siems. A small crowd had gathered to celebrate its release at the apartment of Henry Finder, the New Yorker’s editorial director, and his partner Kwame Anthony Appiah, the human rights philosopher.
“Larry was part of a team of human rights researchers,” Mr. Oakes continued, “That spent countless hours going through well over a hundred thousand documents to produce a book that’s really the definitive work of human rights abuses committed under the auspices of the U.S. government post-9/11.” He turned to the night’s host. “Anthony is perhaps the foremost voice on behalf of human rights in this country, if not the world. I think it’s fair to mention Anthony’s latest book—The Honor Code.” He pulled a book with a white jacket out of the pocket of his blazer. “This is my copy.”
Mr. Siems, originally a poet and the director of PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write and International Programs, pieced together The Torture Report from government documents, official investigations, testimonials and a variety of other materials. (There were some 140,000 sources altogether.) It was published first serially online where a group of appointed commentators—many of which were former interrogators and investigators—left public comments and suggestions. Many of these are reprinted in the book.
“There’s too much for one person to deal with,” Mr. Siems told The Observer. “To have a career interrogator say, ‘That’s absurd for the following six reasons,’ that brings something to this that I couldn’t do.”
So how did a poet switch gears to become a human rights watch dog and the author of a fairly comprehensive history of atrocities committed by the Bush administration?
“Writers have always played a really key role in societies that are emerging from human rights abuses,” he said. “They’ve been the ones who have helped tell the story, expanded the story or made the story more nuanced. You think about postwar Germany—the fiction turned it from, ‘Well it was us and the Nazis’ to ‘How do this happen under our watch? What is our level complicity?’”
The apartment’s floors were covered in oriental rugs and the walls adorned with paintings from all kinds of eras. It was the sort of large and dignified Manhattan home that one imagines was the site of countless archetypal book parties from days past—warm and welcoming even though “torture” is not usually the banner under which people gather for a party. Anyway, Mr. Appiah sees speaking for human rights as only a “sometimes depressing” business, split 50-50 with “sometimes exhilarating.”
“It’s very important in our work that we’re not just another bunch of Americans telling other people that they’re behaving badly,” he told the crowd during a toast for Mr. Siems. “Our talk of these things is meaningless if we don’t also hold our own government to the standards that we ask other governments to live up to.”
Later, The Observer found Mr. Oakes deep in the middle of conversation in a corner by the bar. His tall tuft of white hair made him stick out from the fray, and he had an intense, furrowed brow.
“It’s just that I know publishing, and the system doesn’t work for anybody,” he was saying gravely, then turned to The Observer and shot out a cheerful, “Oh, hi! Sorry, I’ll be with you in one minute.”
“The big thing about OR Books,” he continued (and again he threw The Observer a quick “sorry”), “Is that we sell books on a non-returnable basis. Even my mother has to pay upfront. We will not ship books unless they are prepaid. We will not accept returns. There’s no inventory—we print as they’re ordered. We also do eBooks. And it’s working! It is a much better system.”
“What do you think about the book?” The Observer cut in.
“It’s moving and it’s exciting and it’s awful,” he said. “You think it’s gonna be on every bed stand in America?”