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Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas

(City Atlases)

4.39  ·  Rating details ·  469 ratings  ·  68 reviews
Like the bestselling Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, this book is a brilliant reinvention of the traditional atlas, one that provides a vivid, complex look at the multi-faceted nature of New Orleans, a city replete with contradictions. More than twenty essays assemble a chorus of vibrant voices, including geographers, scholars of sugar and bananas, the city's ...more
Hardcover, 176 pages
Published November 18th 2013 by University of California Press
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Average rating 4.39  · 
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 ·  469 ratings  ·  68 reviews

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Nov 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A varied bunch of essays, super interesting on the whole.
Mar 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I want to get to KNOW this city!
Jun 08, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2019
Solnit's book on San Francisco read like a love letter to a beloved. While I don't know New Orleans well at all...I suspect this book is also a love letter. I made a long list of places she reference for my next visit when I continue my exploration of NOLA.
blue-collared mind
I wrote an earlier review of this book (I contain more multitudes than you can shake a stick at) and have now decided to update it since receiving the actual published book since I used the advanced reader copy for the previous review and now after reading more of it in a different location than the last time and viewing all of the maps that weren't in the ARC, and all of this new stuff done on All Saints Day, no less. Told you: multitudes.
I decided to do it without the previous cranky insertion
Molly Ferguson
Nov 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is a stunning work of mapping and nonfiction essays that each demonstrate a paradox of New Orleans - the beauty of its culture and spirit vs. its troubled political landscape. There are maps that contrast maps that depict slavery with the prison system there today, or sweet things sold in New Orleans with diabetes and dialysis clinics. The maps are gorgeous, and the essays are so moving. Highly recommend!
Mar 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A beautiful tribute to the complicated, wonderful city of New Orleans and especially its people. This book is an atlas, but nothing like you used to find (or maybe still do?) in a gas station convenience store. Within, there are 20 beautiful and heartfelt essays on topics that are relevant to the city's past, present, and future. Each essay is accompanied by an artistic and cartographically accurate map of the city, showing the impact of that particular topic on New Orleans.

One essay, called
May 25, 2014 added it
A beautiful and really fun collection of 22 short essays and accompanying maps/atlases illustrating the content of the essays about New Orleans. This book is oversize and stunning, but comes with what I consider two major flaws: 1), and this is a biggy, because it is a paperback book, and the maps span 2 pages, it is really difficult to see what the maps contain in the middle toward the crease without breaking the spine. In a book that is considered to be an atlas, and one where the maps are ...more
Matt Heimer
Mar 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
A strange, haunting and lovely book that combines essays about culture, politics and economics in post-Katrina New Orleans with maps that illuminate and draw out their themes. And vice versa, actually, since many cases the maps came first. I've got an irrational and unstoppable city crush on New Orleans, so I was predisposed to like this book, but I'd still recommend it to anybody who's interested in graphic storytelling. And to anyone who loves New Orleans, which really should be everybody.
Lissa Notreallywolf
American history is a loose designation for this book, but it's full of it. In another essay driven exploration of a major city we get to explore New Orleans, so multifaceted it's a gem. But it's also a "concrete lilypad" a dangerous and endangered environment from years of trying to subdue the Miss. R. and the coastal weather issues, not to mention the impact of so many humans. A very watery book which convinced me this was a city I might like to visit, but not live in. I most enjoyed the ...more
Dec 25, 2019 rated it liked it
Compilation of maps and accompanying essays by different authors, of varying quality and interest. In my view, as a lover of NOLA but still an outsider, the most interesting map/essay pairings, and the ones that made the book worth reading, were:
Ebb and Flow: Migrations of the Huoma, Erosions of the Coast, along with the essay Southward into the Vanishing Lands;
The Line-UP: Live Oak Corridors and Carnival Parade Routes, and the accompanying essay Sentinals and Celebrants;
Waterland, and the
Aug 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I've been to nola probably 20 times in the past 20 years and this book is the first thing to capture the spirit. It's well put together and draws some jaw-dropping correlations that are a so damn and insightful it's frustrating!

Highly recommended to anyone who's been even just once or you live there to this day.
Ellen Prewitt
Nov 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Ah, I loved this book. It is gorgeously made. The maps are fabulous, the essays extraordinarily satisfying. One of my favorite writing techniques is to examine unlikely pairings, and this book does that over and over again. A gift, I've had it for a while. I regret it took me so long to dive in.
Oct 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Obsessed with how this book tackles contradictions without ever being too clunky or obvious or didactic.

Favorite maps: People Who (3); Moves, Remains (4); Of Levees and Prisons (7); Hot and Steamy (11); Snakes and Ladders (18); Juju and Cuckoo (20); Lead and Lies (21)
Sep 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Such a thoughtful, beautiful way to look at a city, any city; and with that, a remarkable testament to a particular city that so many think they've got pinned down.
Carina Magyar
Feb 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Don't know if I'll ever feel like I fully "finished" this book. Such a stunning and innovative portrait of the city that will always hold my soul.
Ami Stearns
Jan 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
Her atlases are complex and thought-provoking; beautiful writing.
The maps are wonderful and offer a unique way to approach New Orleans. There are also some rich, interesting stories mixed in, but they're uneven. It's worth picking up for the pictures, though.
Jan 29, 2018 rated it liked it
Fabulous concept. I think I'll enjoy this more once I've actually been to New Orleans.
Oct 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The best book on a city I’ve ever read. The essays on sugar and bananas and their impact in NOLA is fantastic. Lead and lies us another fantastic essay. And the cartography: superb. I’ve learned so much about this city and feel like I know it. Writing this in NOLA.
Sean Chick
Feb 26, 2017 rated it it was ok
A collection of maps, mostly with a very pronounced leftist bent. Even as a Progressive I found it mind numbing at times. A few maps are great (tribal lands, St. Claude Avenue) a few are mediocre (the one on Middle Eastern paraphernalia), and others are down right dull (bananas??!!). One map is a collection of places Billy Sothern likes. It is dreadfully self-indulgent. Another one on cemeteries repeats the lie that we bury our dead above ground because of the water table. I laughed out loud. ...more
Mar 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
An informative series of essays, paired with unique maps, that delves into New Orleans. It's the best cultural/historical "travel guide" on that city that I've ever read. Doesn't do it justice, really, to call it a "guidebook." Even if you have no plans to visit NOLA in the near future, this is wonderful and highly recommended reading.
My five-star rating of this book is directly due to my waiting to review it until I had actually gone to New Orleans. When I was reading it at home just before leaving on my trip, I would have put it pretty solidly in four-star territory. It tackles a variety of interesting topics, and many of the maps have thought-provoking juxtapositions, but I found the essays to be a little hit or miss. But as I said, once I actually saw the city, my appreciation of the book increased. It certainly doesn't ...more
Jan 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing
already hooked… so spot on " So much of the richness of this place is fleeting and forever being renewed: the pleasures of sociability, of festivals and Carnival, of dancing and music, of smiles and greetings and contact, of improvisations that sail out on the night air never to be recaptured but always to be renewed and succeeded."


"The culture of this place is ephemeral. There are cities whose principal culture is literary or visual or architectural, media that endure; but this is a city of
Jan 12, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book is beautiful, and would make a fantastic gift for anyone who loves maps, atlases, or the City that Care Forgot. The writing is generally good, if not great, and the choice of essays is an interesting mix. However, there are some misses: why spend 2 full pages (pp. 26-27) to describe people here who could be from anywhere? This particular map seems a complete waste of space, though the accompanying essay by Elie is a good one. The map on pp. 114-115 is nearly impossible to read in terms ...more
Paula Mckinley
Nov 14, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: first-reads
This is an amazing book for those who love New Orleans or those like me who knew little to nothing. This is not necessarily a book for those looking for vacation tips for visiting New Orleans. However the history, the images, the culture, and the true New Orleans. Something about the tone throughout the conveyed not only experience with the city, but a profound knowledge beyond the poster 'mardi gras'. Excellent book. The only thing I would suggest is with a reprint is that you make the book ...more
Feb 24, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: book-club
I learned A LOT from this book. I really enjoyed Rebecca Solnit's portions as well as her writing partner Rebecca Snedeker. This is truly an atlas and not a literary piece. I was dismayed by most of the other contributors as far as their writing was concerned, not the content. My judgment may be clouded because this was chosen for a book club I'm in, and I think that there will be a lack of depth as far as conversation about the book is concerned. The maps were beautiful and the selections were ...more
Mar 05, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Melody by: Mary Ann
I've been going to New Orleans at least once a year (many years twice) since 1981. I pride myself on knowing the otbt places. I have my regular things I need to do when I go. Have to have a drink at both the carousel bar and the Sazerac bar. Have to ride in a United cab. Have to visit Hové even though I have plenty of perfume. Run on the neutral ground. Ride the green streetcars. Eat at a place I know I love and try some new place. It's hard to tell me something quirky I don't know.

I was
Christine Mason
Feb 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
A unique view of the complex, multi-layered, multi-faceted place that is New Orleans.
Jan 19, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In-depth look at the many facets and faces of Nola, accompanied by gorgeous topical (not topographic) maps.

Structured as 22 essays, each with its accompanying map highlighting a feature or pair of features in New Orleans' history, culture, or people, it's a great way to go deep on America's most singular city without wading through 500+ pages of staid historical non-fiction. And the maps are pretty enough to get framed.

I read this over 6+ months, doing an essay or two at a time. It's worth
Michael Delaware
Nov 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing
New Orleans is one of those cities that when you visit you will be fascinated by the architecture and history. When I won this book in a Goodreads Giveaway, I did not know what to expect. The book does not disappoint. It is an atlas, but it is also interwoven with rich stories about the history of this amazing city.

Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas is one of those books that you can spend hours looking at and studying, and realize you have only examined one or two pages. It is that
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Writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of more than twenty books on feminism, western and indigenous history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and disaster, including Call Them By Their True Names(Winner of the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction), Cinderella Liberator, Men Explain Things to Me, The Mother of All Questions, and Hope in ...more

Other books in the series

City Atlases (3 books)
  • Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas
  • Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas
“No matter how deeply you come to know a place, you can keep coming back to know it more.” 6 likes
“If you walk a city, if you love a city, if you put in your miles and years with open heart and mind, the city will reveal itself to you. Maybe it won't become yours, but you will become its - its chronicler, its pilgrim, its ardent lover, its nonnative son or native daughter or defender.” 2 likes
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