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New Guest Book Review: Camps
July 26, 2009 - 1:39pm


Today it makes me happy to help two of my favorite people cross paths, in a sense.

Katya Cummins is a former student of mine, and a terrific young writer, whom I’ve asked to review books periodically from university presses here at the blog. If you’re an author or marketer with a university press and would like Katya to consider reviewing your book for a general audience, please contact me at

Charlie Hailey is an Assistant Professor in the University of Florida’s School of Architecture. I’ve known him since the old grad-school days in Miami, where he and his wife, Melanie, lived in a funky vernacular A-frame on a fallow mango-avocado orchard. They often hosted bonfire parties at which many howled at the moon hanging over the Everglades.


Camps: A Guide to 21st-Century Space. Charlie Hailey. The MIT Press, April 2009. $29.95.

Review by Katya Cummins

Camp David and terrorist camps; refugee camps and concentration camps; Boy Scout camp and boot camp: You might ask how seemingly uncorrelated places that serve opposite functions are able to coexist in the same book. This question, as so often happens, can only be answered by asking another: "What is a camp?"

Its cardboard cover and exposed binding evoking a rough guidebook, Camps seeks to extend the definition of camps and camping beyond recreation. Hailey writes that camps should be seen as "built environments," studies of how people utilize and interact with space. He presents camps as "paradoxes," neither permanent nor temporary, things that can't be confined to one political or social context or function. Camps, he argues, are things that simultaneously project, maintain, and shed the lives and histories of the people who make and break them.

Informative and accessible, the book is separated into three broad sections: "Autonomy,” "Control," and "Necessity."

"Autonomy" gives examples of camps you wouldn’t believe exist if it weren't for the photos, blueprints, and rules and equipment lists that accompany the text, such as hacking camps and wall camps. Let's face it: We've all had a secret desire to spend the day at Chaos Communication Camp with other hackers who "excel at making one thing from something else," or to hang vertically on a wall, as mountain climbers do. Others might attend the Austrian Anarchist camp, which in 2006 translated its pamphlets and website into fifteen languages in order to "move beyond the isolation of 'German-speaking anarchists.'" Regardless of their locations or functions, camps, Hailey points out, are founded on the basis of autonomy, even as they connect people and aid in the cultivation of new ideas.

"Control" transitions into a more serious tone. The section touches on immigration camps before segueing into discussions of military camps, including the widely-publicized Guantanamo Bay. The section reaches its climax when Hailey raises questions as to the preservation of concentration camps, such as Auschwitz: "We must not only ask what the role of historic preservation is in places that were not built to endure, but we must come to terms with the site's enduring memory and address whether to memorialize the remnant's meanings. Complicating these questions is the diversity of the site's visitors, its tourists, survivors, researchers, and pilgrims."

If concentration camps are on the furthest end of control, and anarchy camps are at the farthest end of autonomy, then, as Hailey writes, "camps of necessity" fall somewhere in-between. Here, we have Planned Camps and Refugee Camps, such as Benaco Camp, which on April 28, 1994, became home to "nearly a quarter of a million refugees [that] crossed Rwanda's eastern border to enter Tanzania."

Hailey writes of Gypsy Camps and Survivalist Camps, and he mentions that in 1990, "Britt, Iowa, hosted the first Hobo Convention." The convention served as a "roadside lyceum to train young hobos" and offered "repositories of local information."

A different kind of lyceum is the Hobo Convention’s doppelganger, Camp Maple, in which Emerson recalls a "sophisticated camper [shouting] 'well done' on hearing a masterful piano rendition of Beethoven from a log cabin in the wilderness." Hailey dubs camps with elements of glamor/luxury "glamps," because they undercut our traditional notions of what camps or camping is all about. If they too exist within the definition, than what exactly is a camp?

It's hard to pinpoint exactly, but Hailey's intellectual guidebook gets us thinking, just as William James "saw [New York's Keen Valley Camp as] not only a place of escape but also a site for engaging vital questions of the time." Camps itself presents the opportunity for contemplation on living in a world of paradoxes, where places meant to be temporary—trailer parks—have endured, and sites used for contemporary political purposes—concentration camps—have also marked the historical rise and fall of cultures.

Above all, Hailey argues throughout for the influence of camps, even when it’s coincidental: If John Lennon and Paul McCartney hadn’t met up with Ringo Starr at Skegness Camp, where he’d been playing with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, there might have been no Beatles as we know them.

Hailey’s look at that influence is welcome and important. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1937 in his invitation for the Boy Scouts to hold their first National Jamboree camp in the nation’s capital, “To the American people for generations camping was a way of living—it is in our very blood.


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