The Post’s Mystery Pic

Why did Jenna Slosson read her book upside-down?

Really readin' in the rain? (click on image to expand)
Really readin’ in the rain? (click on image to expand)

For days Chatterbox has been puzzling over a photograph that appeared in the April 3 Washington Post. You know how newspapers will often send photographers out to document the weather? With dopey captions like, “Whew! It’s a Scorcher!” or “Winter Wonderland” or “A Riot of Autumn Color”? This was one such weather “pic” (journalese for “picture”). It was taken on a miserable rainy day, and it showed a young woman identified as “Jenna Slosson” as she stood waiting for a bus in Georgetown. With her right hand she held a black umbrella. With her left hand she held a paperback book. The caption was “Readin’ in the Rain.”

But was Jenna Slosson really readin’? This question arose because in the picture, Slosson appeared to be holdin’ her book upside-down. Was she—or the Post—pullin’ our leg?

“It doesn’t look like the front of a book,” the Washington Post’s assistant managing editor for photography, Joe Elbert, conceded to Chatterbox. Elbert said that this one weather pic had generated more phone calls and e-mails than allthe horrifying images that the Post published last week of an Iraqi mob desecrating the corpses of American security contractors * at Fallujah. The weather pic was not, Elbert said, any kind of Post-generated hoax.

After hearing the first few complaints about “Readin’ in the Rain,” Elbert blew up the image to see whether the white type on what should be the paperback’s front cover appeared right-side up. He thought that maybe he could make out the word “the,” but he wasn’t sure. (“It could be the world’s ugliest book jacket,” Elbert offered hopefully.) The photographer, James Parcell, told Chatterbox he’d been trying to contact Slosson so he could find out the name of the book, and perhaps why she might have read it—or pretended to read it—upside down. (The pic was shot one day after April Fool’s Day, which may or may not rule out a prank. Slosson did not smile in the picture, nor did she seem to suppress mirth.)

Chatterbox was able to establish that a person named Jenna Slosson worked on the finance staff of John Edwards’ presidential campaign, and he left a phone message on her home answering machine. But Parcell thinks he may have spelled Jenna Slosson’s name wrong—she shouted it to him as she was climbing aboard a noisy city bus—so it may be that the former Edwards staffer is not the young woman in the picture. Chatterbox stands at the ready to provide up-to-the-minute updates on this important breaking story.

[Update, 4 p.m.: Several readers, including sometime Slate contributor James Surowiecki, have written in to say that the book is a right-side-up mass market paperback of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian feminist novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The cover, they say, has been torn off, and what you see in the pic is a second cover behind the first one. Chatterbox can’t for the life of him tell how these readers know it’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but their unanimity on this point is humbling. Probably they are right—the book isn’t upside-down at all—but Chatterbox will pursue this matter until he’s certain.]

Correction, April 6, 2004:An earlier version of this column identified the Americans, erroneously, as soldiers. The Americans were employed by a private security firm hired by the United States government. [ Return to corrected sentence.]