The best books on identity documents in the modern world

Sarah E. Igo Author Of The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America
By Sarah E. Igo

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By John C. Torpey

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

Why 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.


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The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork

By Ben Kafka

The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork

Why 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.


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Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness

By Simone Browne

Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness

Why 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.


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The File: A Personal History

By Timothy Garton Ash

The File: A Personal History

Why 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.


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Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen

By Jose Antonio Vargas

Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen

Why 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.


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