Posted August 29th 2017 at 11:32 am by
in Reading Lists

Place-Based Summer Reading: Pittsburgh | Part I

1506 Pittsburgh late June-15

Contrary to popular belief, Masters programs are not the most conducive setting for any kind of reading. As a writer and editor who stepped away from that field to enter a graduate program in city planning, I knew I would miss my work with words of many kinds. I remember a conversation in a research design course in November around an essay that extolled the value that reading widely can bring to the mind of a researcher, which so often works in metaphor and thrives on the uncanny connection; it was a lovely idea which had thus far been somewhat unachievable.

This summer, as I prepared to head to Pittsburgh to work for the city on housing policy, I resolved to revive and expand my reading again, for pleasure and to break some of the less ideal thought habits that intensive academic work can breed in the mind. As I’m wont to do, I first gravitated toward books about place, and specifically the place I would call home for a few months. I stockpiled Pittsburgh titles, brought along books I’d acquired over the course of the year but were left lonely on the shelf, and, upon arrival in the new city, got to know it through its fine bookstores as well. A reading list that stretched across genres and forms so as to stretch my brain took shape.

This list will come out in two parts, but here’s the full list in case you don’t make it over to Part 2.

  1. Annie Dillard, An American Childhood
  2. John Lewis, Andrew Ayden, & Nate Powell, March: Book 3
  3. Josh Jelly-Schapiro, Island People: The Caribbean and the World
  4. Yuri Herrera, The Transmigration of Bodies
  5. August Wilson, Century Cycle
  6. Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk
  7. bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions & The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

Annie Dillard, An American Childhood

After reading Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek last year — one of the most striking meditations on nature and wonder I’ve ever come across — I resolved to make my way through her other work at some point. Moving to Pittsburgh for the summer, and living down the street from her childhood home, provided the perfect impetus to pick up this memoir of childhood and of becoming.

Reading Dillard at any inflection point – any transition of seasons or of self – can feel startling in its intimacy. She writes about time, loss, and change with a clarity borne of mundane events made beautiful and meaningful. And after a year in which I’d gone back and forth from deeply introspective to charging forth just to get through the semester at times, her writing has the power to open oneself back up to the world and its small pleasures and horrors.

John Lewis, Andrew Ayden, & Nate Powell, March: Book 3

There’s a comic book store in Union Square, Somerville, that is perfect to peruse on a weekend afternoon, and as a relatively new appreciator of graphic novels and comics, I was delighted to find John Lewis’s autobiography writ in strip. This final volume in the series begins with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and courses through the rise of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Freedom Summer, Selma, and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, with all the attendant triumphs and setbacks in between.

I delight in Lewis’s heroic life being rendered in graphic form, not only because it’s beautifully and creatively done but for its accessibility and the elevation of his and his fellow organizers work to a higher realm. The narrative feels so genuinely Lewis: at once humble and conflicted while also filled with resolve; his voice is enhanced by, not lost among, the drawings.

Josh Jelly-Schapiro, Island People: The Caribbean and the World

One of my favorite repercussions of having worked briefly as a writer and an editor is the occasion to read my former collaborators’ books, in part because of a better understanding of what a feat the book actually represents and for an even stronger sense of voice one can pick up in the text. It was, then, doubly joyful to read a collaborator’s book in so many ways tied to my past studies on Latin America and social movements.

Jelly-Schapiro’s work of reportage, cultural criticism, and historical interpretation spans the entire Caribbean, a task both daunting and artfully surmounted through true characters and a deep understanding of the region and history that allow connections to come about organically. Josh ascends to the heights of his intellectual crush and Trinidadian journalist C.L.R. James in his ability to speak as fluently about the origins of modernity in the Caribbean as he is about the role of the clave in Afro-Cuban music, son and salsa included, or the universality of Premier League soccer.

Continued in Part 2.

Jonathan Tarleton is a masters of city planning student at MIT, a freelance writer, and an oral historian currently living in Somerville, Mass. He served as the chief researcher and a contributor for Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas, published in October 2016 by University of California Press and editors Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, and was formerly the editor-in-chief of Urban Omnibus. Find more of his writing at

Photo credit: Devon Christopher Adams

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