Top Ten Books of 2009, Number Two

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Dan Baum, Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans

“Stop thinking of New Orleans as the worst-organized city in the United States,” author Dan Baum starts off this book. “Start thinking of it as the best-organized city in the Caribbean.”

Baum, a writer for magazines such as the New Yorker, spends the next 319 pages showing us what he means. The book is “a multi-voiced biography” of nine ordinary (perhaps I should say “not famous” because there’s nothing “ordinary” about some of these lives) people living in New Orleans up to and right after Hurricane Katrina.

The book is a narrative, although written, of course, from an outsider’s vantage point. You won’t find the subtleties of New Orleans culture or even the accents that you would find in, for instance, John Kennedy Toole’s great novel A Confederacy of Dunces. But you’ll find here what many reviewers rightly, I think, note is an “empathetic” and “compassionate” account of human stories in an almost-drowned City with many more than nine lives.

If you don’t have time to read the book, read the “About This Book” section at the front. Baum does a very good job explaining, I think, why New Orleanians, despite the poverty, the murders, the corrupt government officials, consistently rate on surveys as the happiest of Americans.

As Baum puts it: “In the context of a techno-driven, profit-crazy hyper-efficient self-image of the United States, New Orleans is a city-sized act of civil disobedience.”

Even if you’ve never been to New Orleans, this book will make you think about what makes your city or village or town unique, and will call you to love it (and the human stories buzzing about within it) more.


We live in a fearful and cowardly time. The crisis we face is not a crisis of clarity but a crisis of courage.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Public Theologian at Christianity Today and Director of Christianity Today’s Public Theology Project.