My favorite books on identity documents in the modern world

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m an American intellectual historian and professor at Vanderbilt University. I’ve long been fascinated by the history and politics of data: the question of how publicly available knowledge shapes societies as well as individual selves. It’s led me to research the effects of popular polls and statistics on mid-century U.S. culture and to write about how ever-advancing techniques for “knowing” citizens shaped modern privacy sensibilities. My current obsession is with official identity documents—how they infiltrate people’s lives in ways that are at once bureaucratic and curiously intimate. The books I’ve selected lay bare the promise and the peril of documentation in wonderfully vivid detail.

I wrote...

The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America

By Sarah E. Igo,

Book cover of The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America

What is my book about?

Every day, we make decisions about what to share and when, how much to expose, and to whom. Securing the boundary between one’s private affairs and public identity has become an urgent task of modern life. The Known Citizen tracks the quest for privacy in the United States over the last century and a half, revealing enduring debates over how Americans would―and, importantly, should―be known.  

Beginning with “instantaneous photography” in the late nineteenth century and culminating in our present dilemmas over social media and big data, the book uncovers the surprising ways that arguments over what should be kept out of the public eye have shaped U.S. politics and society.  It offers the first wide-angle view of privacy as it has been lived and imagined by modern Americans—with powerful lessons for our own times, when corporations, government agencies, and data miners are tracking our every move.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State

Sarah E. Igo Why did I love this book?

Torpey’s book, first published in 2000, is now a classic. With it, he helped open up a whole field of inquiry into the history of official documents and identification techniques that both constrain—and make conceivable—modern society. Here, think of street addresses, fingerprints, birth certificates, credit records, driver’s licenses, tax forms, and visas. For Torpey, the passport, “that little paper booklet with the power to open international doors,” is a window into modern nation states’ interest in regulating movement. For his readers, it is a bracing reminder of how recent those controls are and how habituated we denizens of the 21st century have become to showing our papers.

By John C. Torpey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Invention of the Passport as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book presents the first detailed history of the modern passport and why it became so important for controlling movement in the modern world. It explores the history of passport laws, the parliamentary debates about those laws, and the social responses to their implementation. The author argues that modern nation-states and the international state system have 'monopolized the 'legitimate means of movement',' rendering persons dependent on states' authority to move about - especially, though not exclusively, across international boundaries. This new edition reviews other scholarship, much of which was stimulated by the first edition, addressing the place of identification documents…

Book cover of The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork

Sarah E. Igo Why did I love this book?

What’s not to like about a book on “the psychic life of paperwork”? The Demon of Writing is a meditation on the rise of a modern “culture of paperwork” from the French Revolution onward. It brings to the foreground things we don’t tend to think about until we are caught up in some sort of bureaucratic morass: memos, forms, reports, and files. And it probes the ideologies buried under all that official paper. Linking the rise of paperwork to the rise of political representation, Kafka is interested in the way record-keeping promises uniformity or predictability but just as often produces an error, friction, and resistance. This is a witty and illuminating account of the rule of documents, packed with stories drawn from the bureaucratic archive.

By Ben Kafka,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Demon of Writing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since the middle of the eighteenth century, political thinkers of all kinds — radical and reactionary, professional and amateur — have been complaining about “bureaucracy.” But what, exactly, is all this complaining about?

The Demon of Writing is a critical history and theory of one of the most ubiquitous, least understood forms of media: paperwork. States rely on records to tax and spend, protect and serve, discipline and punish. But time and again this paperwork proves to be unreliable. Examining episodes from the story of a clerk who lost his job and then his mind in the French Revolution to…

Book cover of Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness

Sarah E. Igo Why did I love this book?

This revelatory set of essays insists on the long, intertwined histories of anti-blackness and surveillance stretching all the way from the Atlantic slave trade to the present. Browne’s wide-ranging cases—from the plan of a slave ship, to the use of brands, passes, and lantern laws to monitor enslaved people, to post-9/11 security checks at airports—unearth the foundational role of racism in driving systems of identification and documentation intended to regulate those “out of place.” After reading Dark Matters, it is impossible to see surveillance technologies, whether centuries-old or brand new, as separable from the policing of black bodies and lives.

By Simone Browne,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Dark Matters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Dark Matters Simone Browne locates the conditions of blackness as a key site through which surveillance is practiced, narrated, and resisted. She shows how contemporary surveillance technologies and practices are informed by the long history of racial formation and by the methods of policing black life under slavery, such as branding, runaway slave notices, and lantern laws. Placing surveillance studies into conversation with the archive of transatlantic slavery and its afterlife, Browne draws from black feminist theory, sociology, and cultural studies to analyze texts as diverse as the methods of surveilling blackness she discusses: from the design of the…

Book cover of The File: A Personal History

Sarah E. Igo Why did I love this book?

Although it reads like a spy novel, this is the real-life account of a noted English journalist’s encounter with his own Stasi surveillance file. The file in question was compiled in the early 1980s by the East German secret police on Garton Ash (code name “Romeo”), then a young man living in Berlin and writing about Central European communism. Garton Ash opened his file fifteen years later, after the former German Democratic Republic made Stasi records accessible. Tracking those who tailed him, the book explores the uneasy sensation of reading one’s past life through the photographs, informant reports, surveillance notes, and speculations of those tasked with observing a target of suspicion. It’s a compelling and often chilling chronicle of the costs both of watching and being watched.

By Timothy Garton Ash,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The File as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1978 Timothy Garton Ash went to live in Berlin to see what that divided city could teach him about tyranny and freedom. Fifteen years later, by then internationally famous for his reportage of the downfall of communism in Central Europe, he returned to look at his Stasi file which bore the code-name 'Romeo'. Compiled by the East German secret police, with the assistance of both professional spies and ordinary people turned informer, it contained a meticulous record of his earlier life in Berlin.

In this memoir, he describes rediscovering his younger self through the eyes of the Stasi, and…

Book cover of Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen

Sarah E. Igo Why did I love this book?

Vargas’s memoir begins, “I do not know where I will be when you read this book.”  An undocumented immigrant (and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist) who was brought to the United States from the Philippines as a child, Vargas only learned that he was in the country illegally when he applied for a driver’s license at age 16.  In 2011, after two decades in the shadows, Vargas publicly revealed his legal status. His anxious, tireless quest for a driver’s license, like his quest to belong in the only country he knows as home, raises urgent questions about the power of documents and borders to define people’s life chances. I’ve taught this beautifully written book several times and it never fails to move my students – and me.

By Jose Antonio Vargas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dear America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


"This riveting, courageous memoir ought to be mandatory reading for every American." -Michelle Alexander, New York Times bestselling author of The New Jim Crow

"l cried reading this book, realizing more fully what my parents endured." -Amy Tan, New York Times bestselling author of The Joy Luck Club and Where the Past Begins

"This book couldn't be more timely and more necessary." -Dave Eggers, New York Times bestselling author of What Is the What and The Monk of Mokha

Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, called "the most famous undocumented immigrant in America," tackles one of the…

You might also like...

Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

Book cover of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

Gabrielle Robinson Author Of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Retired english professor

Gabrielle's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Gabrielle found her grandfather’s diaries after her mother’s death, only to discover that he had been a Nazi. Born in Berlin in 1942, she and her mother fled the city in 1945, but Api, the one surviving male member of her family, stayed behind to work as a doctor in a city 90% destroyed.

Gabrielle retraces Api’s steps in the Berlin of the 21st century, torn between her love for the man who gave her the happiest years of her childhood and trying to come to terms with his Nazi membership, German guilt, and political responsibility.

Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

What is this book about?

"This is not a book I will forget any time soon."
Story Circle Book Reviews

Moving and provocative, Api's Berlin Diaries offers a personal perspective on the fall of Berlin 1945 and the far-reaching aftershocks of the Third Reich.

After her mother's death, Robinson was thrilled to find her beloved grandfather's war diaries-only to discover that he had been a Nazi.

The award-winning memoir shows Api, a doctor in Berlin, desperately trying to help the wounded in cellars without water or light. He himself was reduced to anxiety and despair, the daily diary his main refuge. As Robinson retraces Api's…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in undocumented immigrants, Canada, and East Germany?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about undocumented immigrants, Canada, and East Germany.

Undocumented Immigrants Explore 24 books about undocumented immigrants
Canada Explore 387 books about Canada
East Germany Explore 27 books about East Germany