Read Your Way Through New Orleans

Read Your Way Around the World is a series exploring the globe through books.


New Orleans is a tourist destination frequented as much for its local dishes (gumbo, jambalaya, among others) as for the spectacle that is Mardi Gras — where you may run into drunk college students on spring break, but could also bump into the Grammy Award-winning artist Jon Batiste. By some counts, it’s one of the most festive cities in America, with a party or two happening almost every week.

Behind all the festivities, though, is a rich and dark history. The city is an eclectic mix of Caribbean, French, Spanish and Native American cultures, and, depending on which neighborhood you encounter, you may feel a sense of disorientation. Historically, enslaved people from other states were sometimes sent to New Orleans as punishment, but the city also served as a home base for many Haitians seeking a new life after their country gained independence in 1804.

The literature of New Orleans is an important supplement to your experience of the city. These books are both a compass to guide you through its many different influences and a celebration of the free spirit that has made the city a haven for itinerant artists, writers and travelers in search of a new perspective.

“Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood,” by Fatima Shaik, provides a fascinating look at the city from the slavery era through the Jazz Age. Using primary documents that her father rescued from a trash hauler’s pickup truck, Shaik builds a nonfiction narrative that’s both illuminating and compulsively readable.

“New Orleans Griot: The Tom Dent Reader,” a collection of Dent’s writings edited by Kalamu ya Salaam, covers the life of an important literary figure. These pieces provide an insider’s view of the city’s legendary Mardi Gras Indians, as well as Mississippi’s Free Southern Theater during the Black Arts movement. In many ways, modern New Orleans writers are descendants of Dent and his cohort.

Also consider a Pulitzer Prize-winning cult classic: John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces.” It is somewhat of a riff on Don Quixote and captures the cockeyed whimsy that helps natives live in a city that is below sea level and perpetually threatened with destruction by the forces of nature.

“Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas,” by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker, is a collection of essays that touches on almost every neighborhood in the city. Published in 2013, several years after the catastrophic damage caused during Hurricane Katrina and the government’s response, these snapshots will help orient the reader as they travel from place to place. One essay, for example, traces the connection between the city’s vibrant marching band culture and how those young members go on to become professional musicians.

Definitely read Sarah M. Broom’s memoir, The Yellow House,” the 2019 winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction. This book deftly weaves the history of one family with the development of a neighborhood called New Orleans East, depicting life outside of the tourist districts where many working-class locals live. It’s about the dreams we have and the way those dreams do and don’t come true.

Do a double header of Ernest J. Gaines classics, “Bloodline” and “A Lesson Before Dying.” Both books focus on the rural Black community in Pointe Coupée Parish, La., where he was raised. His ability to compellingly render that community, which was otherwise ignored by history, is one of the many reasons he earned fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation, among other accolades.

Before Hurricane Katrina, there was another natural disaster that redefined New Orleans: the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. John M. Barry’s “Rising Tide” examines, in enthralling prose, the flood’s consequences for the people who lived in the rural parts of Louisiana that lacked levee protection. The book is a tale of government mismanagement and neglect that foreshadowed the arrival of Katrina many decades later.

Jarvis DeBerry was an opinion columnist for The Times-Picayune and NOLA.com for 21 years. His excellent collection of essays, “I Feel to Believe: Collected Columns, covers virtually every topic that was important to the life of the city between 1998 and 2019. Fearless in DeBerry’s explorations of race, policing, education, politics and the quirkiness of New Orleans, this book is a must read.

“1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina,” by Chris Rose, is often called the definitive book about life in the city at the time of Katrina. With gallows humor and a keen eye, Rose gives the ultimate local’s perspective. For many residents who lost loved ones or property and felt abandoned by the government, this book offered catharsis.

Also, Mona Lisa Saloy has a wonderful book of poetry called “Black Creole Chronicles” that captures so much of the linguistic cadence and rhythm of locals who are heavily influenced by both African American and Francophile culture. She preserves the voices of 20th century New Orleans like no one else.

Karisma Price’s debut poetry collection, I’m Always So Serious,” has set New Orleans buzzing with the deftness of her vision and her attention to the kind of details that show the city in a fresh way. Also, Jami Attenberg, who moved to the city about a decade ago, has become a central and supportive figure in the local literary community. She has not one but two books out this year: “1,000 Words: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Creative, Focused, and Productive All Year Round” and the forthcoming “A Reason to See You Again.” The first is a craft book centered around Attenberg’s popular writing program; the latter, a novel, follows a troubled mother and her two daughters over four decades.

Baldwin & Co. a short walk from Jackson Square — the centerpiece of New Orleans for centuries — has become a community hub in its three years. Classic bookstores with local owners like Community Book Center and Octavia Books, which just finished an extensive renovation, are great places to learn about the city’s literary history. Also, some of New Orleans’s streetcar lines are still operational and worth a ride — especially for fans of the Tennessee Williams play “A Streetcar Named Desire.” While the Desire line no longer exists, the other lines offer great views of the city at a leisurely pace.

New Orleans has beautiful parks and public venues. Go for a walk in Crescent Park, which has gorgeous views of the downtown skyline and places to sit and read. Audubon Riverview Park, known to locals as “The Fly,” and Audubon Park proper are great places to lay out a blanket with one’s book of choice.

A trip to New Orleans must also include beignets at Cafe Du Monde. For a classic New Orleans lunch, stop by Neyow’s, Parkway Bakery or Commander’s Palace and O’Delice or Sucré for dessert. Walk through the French Quarter, take a ride on the St. Charles streetcar line and visit the New Orleans Museum of Art. When you’re ready for dinner, consider Dooky Chase, Morrow’s or Herbsaint before nightcapping at the Maple Leaf Bar or Blue Nile while listening to live music. And remember: Tip the performers — it’s good etiquette.

  • “Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood,” Fatima Shaik

  • “New Orleans Griot: The Tom Dent Reader,” Tom Dent, edited by Kalamu ya Salaam

  • “A Confederacy of Dunces,” John Kennedy Toole

  • “Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas,” Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker

  • “The Yellow House,” Sarah M. Broom

  • “Bloodline” and “A Lesson Before Dying,” Ernest J. Gaines

  • “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America,” John M. Barry

  • I Feel to Believe: Collected Columns,” Jarvis DeBerry

  • “1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina,” Chris Rose

  • “Black Creole Chronicles,” Mona Lisa Saloy

  • “I’m Always So Serious,” Karisma Price

  • “1,000 Words: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Creative, Focused, and Productive All Year Round” and “A Reason to See You Again,” Jami Attenberg

  • “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Tennessee Williams

Maurice Carlos Ruffin, who grew up in New Orleans, is the author of “The American Daughters” and “The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You.”



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