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Books That Define The Regions And Cities Of America

August 12, 2016

Reporters and editors on the National Desk of The New York Times were asked to suggest books that a visitor ought to read to truly understand the American cities and regions where they live, work and travel.  There were no restrictions — novels, memoirs, histories and children’s books were fair game. Here are some selections.

An example.

There is no shortage of great books on Louisiana, though a lot of them, like A. J. Liebling’s brilliant “The Earl of Louisiana,” better serve as reminders of the eccentric ways the place used to work than as guides to understanding it now. So it’s a little unexpected that one of the most helpful books I’ve read in understanding contemporary New Orleans ends just after the War of 1812.

The Accidental City” by Lawrence N. Powell, a Tulane historian, is about the city’s first 100 years or so, from its founding in the canebrake along the Mississippi River to its gradual takeover by Anglo-Americans.

The New Orleans he describes is dealing with hurricanes, urban planners, eager do-gooders, go-it-alone entrepreneurs, vexatious litigants, overpromising boosters, complex race relations, commonplace violence, tensions between the locally born and the transplants, and an almost comical indifference to top-down planning that drives the authorities and the idealists around the bend. In other words, it’s much the way it is now.

The book is a strong argument that a city’s character is its fate, maybe because of its peculiar geography or maybe because of the assorted mix of people and cultures that settled it. It also shows that even though New Orleans has been portrayed in some truly great fiction, it’s flavorful enough taken neat. — CAMPBELL ROBERTSON

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