New Orleans is a multi-faceted city. It is lively and multicultural, with a distinctive cuisine and architecture. It has a rich and complex history and a perhaps surprising obsession with the supernatural. So you might want to do some reading before you go! Here are my suggestions for books to read before you visit New Orleans and Louisiana.
New Orleans Guidebooks
My first stop for guidebooks is always Lonely Planet, and their New Orleans Travel Guide has lots of background information about the city, as well as descriptions of the different neighbourhoods and tips for your visit. This guide was fully updated in 2023.
Once you have got a general introduction to the city you might like to look beneath the surface and discover some of the more unusual sights. This is where Secret New Orleans comes in – a collection of hidden and unusual sights that you might not find for yourself.
Unfortunately, the Lonely Planet Guide to Louisiana and the Deep South is now out of print – if you are travelling outside of the city you might try, as I did, to find a secondhand copy. (I have been unable to locate a good in print guidebook for Louisiana alone, but guides to the whole of the southern USA are available.)
New Orleans – Classics And Contemporary Novels
The books in this list bring out different aspects of the history and culture of New Orleans and Louisiana. Slavery and race relations feature here, as does Hurricane Katrina. But you’ll also get a real feeling of a vibrant and multicultural region.
- Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening (1899) is set in New Orleans and the Deep South. It is regarded as an early feminist novel, and gives an insight into the lives of the upper middle classes at the end of the 19th century.
- The controversial – and sometimes shocking – playwright Tennessee Williams regarded New Orleans as his “spiritual home”. One of his most famous plays, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), was set in the French Quarter.
- John Kennedy Toole’s classic A Confederacy of Dunces takes place in uptown New Orleans in the 1960s. This is a picaresque novel based on the adventures of Ignatius J Reilly, an initially unsympathetic anti-hero who surrounds himself with chaos. As you are pulled into the minutiae of Ignatius’ life you gradually become immersed in the city and its diverse underclass.
- The Pelican Brief by John Grisham (1992) is a legal thriller centred around oil exploration in Louisiana. As with all of Grisham’s novels, it is gripping to the end!
- Cane River (2001) and Red River (2006) by Lalita Tademy are fictionalised accounts of the author’s own family history. They trace four generations of an enslaved family from the 1830s to the 20th century. The novels are hard-hitting, and show the continuing problems of Afro-Americans following the abolition of slavery.
- This theme is taken up again in A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (2017), which follows a black family in New Orleans from 1944 to 2010.
- For a different kind of conflict read The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke (2007). This is a crime novel set amongst the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Spooky Novels About New Orleans
A particular aspect of New Orleans culture is a fascination with death and the supernatural – you’ll encounter ghosts, voodoo and massive ornate cemeteries everywhere. Unsurprisingly this has spawned a whole genre of spooky novels! I don’t make any claim for the literary merit of these books but they do give a good picture of New Orleans past and present.
- The undisputed queen of New Orleans Gothic fiction is Anne Rice. She was very prolific, but her best known works are The Vampire Chronicles. The first in the series is Interview with the Vampire (1976).
- Midnight Bayou by Nora Roberts (2001) is a time-slip novel in which a wealthy lawyer purchases a derelict plantation house, encounters ghosts, and finds himself travelling back in time. (I’m not a fan of Nora Roberts, but she does give a good sense of place.)
- Ciji Ware has written two “time travel” novels based in New Orleans. Midnight on Julia Street (1999) combines life in the modern city and arguments about the preservation of historic buildings with the city’s pre-Civil War history. (The second in the series, A Light on the Veranda (2012), appears to be out of print.)
Do you have any further suggestions for books to read before you visit New Orleans? Let me know in the comments below.Follow me on social media: