by Jeanie Riess
Rebecca Snedeker and Rebecca Solnit's Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas is a book about New Orleans, but it's also a book about the kind of shared experiences and tensions that could exist in almost any city. Twenty-two maps illustrate ancient and recent histories of the Crescent City, with local tabs that inspire hums of pride, like the words "dance on a pool table" plastered over the approximate location of F&M's Patio Bar. One map attempts to chart the "Lead and Lies" of New Orleans from the 1700's to 2013, ending with Mayor Ray Nagin's corruption charges. Another map, called "People Who," complete with illustrations by local artist Bunny Matthews, labels sections of the city according to guesses of who might live in them, including "take bribes," "owned their homes and lost them," "call friends 'honey' and 'sugar'" and "bike with their dogs." A tab over the Bywater reads "gentrify and question gentrification."
Though many of those labels are specific to New Orleans, the themes they highlight exist other places, making the book not only a local's guide to the city, but also an anthropologist's guide to the idea of metropolis. Unfathomable, the book's introduction points out, is a way of saying infinite, and New Orleans, like most cities, can't be neatly charted in 22 maps, let alone a million. "We have mapped New Orleans and its surroundings twenty-two times," Snedeker and Solnit write, "...but we have not drained the well with these few bucket loads. Instead, we hope we have indicated how rich and various, how inexhaustible is this place, and any place, if you look at it, directly and through books, conversations, maps, photographs, dreams, and desires."
Snedeker is a New Orleans native and the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker behind By Invitation Only, a 2006 documentary about New Orleans Carnival society. Solnit is a San Francisco-based writer who also compiled an atlas about her hometown, Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. The duo hired more than a dozen local illustrators, cartographers and writers to contribute to the guide, a sleek not-quite-coffee-table book that's both an intellectual guide to the history and culture of New Orleans and something pretty to thumb through.
Snedeker will read and sign books at Octavia Books this Tuesday at 6 p.m., along with some of the atlas' local contributors, Eve Abrams, Maurice Ruffin and Billy Sothern. Readings and signings with both of the book's editors will follow throughout the next few months, at Garden District Book Shop Nov. 21, at the Allways Lounge Nov. 23 and at Maple Street Book Shop Dec. 11.