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Read Your Way Through New Orleans

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…

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