Reading List

List Author

Shannon Mattern

The New School

Public Reading

In his 1998 book, City Reading, historian David Henkin notes that the proliferation of print forms in antebellum New York — lithographs, popular literature, banners, street signs, handbills, newspapers, banknotes, etc. — “marked the streets as a site of public reading” (3). He advocates that, while “reading the city” is a familiar theme in urban studies, we should also pay attention to reading in the city. Today, the texts and tweets on our phones share the textual landscape with urban screens and electronic tickers and wheatpasted posters. Yet our cities have long functioned as scriptural landscapes and substrates for reading material. This reading list glosses over a few chapters in that epic history.

  • The Epigraphic Habit in the Roman Empire

    The American Journal of Philology

    Thanks to the “epigraphic habit” of first- and second-century Romans, the facades of their ancient cities functioned as archives for their citizens’ existence.

  • Online

    Writing Signs: The Fatimid Public Text

    University of California Press

    In the 10th through the 12th centuries, the Fatimids of Cairo displayed official writing on their minarets’ exteriors and on other public structures. Architecture thus functioned as an infrastructure for communicating territorial claims and codifying beliefs; and the specific aesthetic properties of those “public texts” — their materiality, form, and color — played a key role in how they were read, and what they said.

  • Rome, A City Out of Print

    University of Minnesota Press

    In the new age of print, the proliferation of mass-produced guidebooks, street posters, brochures, maps, and collectible images changed the way people read and navigated their cities, and brought new urban readers — tourists, pilgrims — to town.

  • City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York

    Columbia University Press

    Nineteenth-century New York gave rise to myriad new print forms, which generated new readers and makers of public texts, and had a “palpable material presence in the streets.” Those streets and structures, in their rectlinearity, meanwhile, had a homologous formal relationship to columns of print.

  • Reading Berlin 1900

    Harvard University Press

    The ubiquitous newspaper page, in its quick pace and transience, and in the discontinuous reading practices it promoted, embodied the habits of modernist urban living.

  • Online

    Public Library: An American Commons

    Places Journal

    The rise of the public library, in cities large and small across the world, brought texts in all formats into the hands of urban denizens of all stripes.

  • Online

    Book-Selling on Mutanabbi Street: Texts from Vital Sidewalks


    After the Gulf War, Baghdad’s Mutanabbi Street became home to myriad book street vendors — many of which were intellectuals dedicated to selling their own books or liberating those once banned. That bazaar has since transformed into a “weekly festival … of ideas.”

  • Online

    Little Libraries in the Urban Margins

    Places Journal

    In recent years urban streets have spawned small informal collections of books — little libraries — that constitute a reaction against the privatization of public space, the weakening of public institutions, the corporate control of media’s content and conduits. These mini-collections bring public reading, and the commons, back to our public streets.

  • Online

    Holding Electronic Networks by the Wrong End


    In this age of ubiquitous connectivity, the humble telephone pole – a scaffolding for the wires that connect our homes into global networks – serves as a hub for local notices and flyers and pleas for the return of lost pets. While the community connected by its wires is widely networked, the pole itself rallies a community that is hyper-local.

  • Online

    Paju Bookcity: The Next Chapter

    Places Journal

    In the “Digital Dynasty” of South Korea, a nation that prides itself on its speed and spread of digital connectivity, a haven for old-fashioned book publishing and slow reading has arisen over the past decade in the Han Valley, not far from the demilitarized zone.

  • Online

    Adrian Tomine’s New Yorker Covers

    The New Yorker

    Tomine’s covers show poignant moments when readers – of paperbacks, e-readers, smartphones – find either privacy or intimate connection amidst the city’s often-overwhelming publicity.

  • Word. Sound. Power. (Exhibition)

    The artists in this Tate Modern exhibition ask, what about the public voice? What of reading aloud? Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Caroline Bergvall, Amar Kanwar, and others consider the aesthetic and political potentials of the testimonial, the oral witness, poetry and song.

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    Urban Screens Reader

    Institute for Network Cultures

    How do we read and form reading publics when so much of our public reading takes place on urban screens — both those at the scale of a block-long building façade, and those that fit in our palms?

  • Online

    Interfacing Urban Intelligence

    Places Journal

    As more and more of our urban operations are automated and algorithmized, their logic locked in a black box, how can we read into our urban operating systems?

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