Book Review: Known and Strange Things

Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole, 2016

Nonfiction essay collection on wide-ranging topics from photography to police brutality.

Random House

Random House

 Through a series of 51 essays, author and art historian, Teju Cole, ponders fascinating artistic, social and historical questions he has for the world and for himself.

Nonfiction

388 pages (UK Edition, including color photography inserts), Penguin Random House, $17.00


In Teju Cole’s first novel, Open City (2011), we saw an author with wide-ranging interests and an eye that was keenly trained toward the quotidian and the universal. We caught glimpses and stole peaks at his vast intellectual interests. We went a mile wide and an inch deep. However, in his new release, Known and Strange Things, Cole takes us on a fascinating journey that is a mile wide and a mile deep. Known and Strange Things is the magnifying glass that allows us to read between the lines and follow the many intellectual ellipses left in Open City. As he stated in the collection’s introduction:

“This book contains what I have loved and witnessed, what has seemed right and what has brought joy, what I have been troubled and encouraged by, and what has fostered my sense of possibility and made me feel, as Seamus Heaney wrote, like ‘a hurry through which known and strange things pass.’”

With these words—the final sentence of the introduction—Cole hands us his looking glass. Actually, he does not quite hand it totally to us. Instead, he invites us to look into it with him. Look where, you ask? Everywhere. The scope of his intellectual lens is vast, perceptive and impressive. It functions similarly to a camera; pointing carefully and steadily to the sights we may not see on our own. As an art historian, author, photographer and critic, Cole possesses incredibly diverse interests—interests that take him from New York to Nigeria; from Rio de Janeiro to Shanghai. From poetry to drones. From elite dinner parties to desperate Texan border towns. It is this sense of wonder that ushers us into this collection. And it is his intense reverence for historical icons that beautifully accentuates each essay. With topics ranging from Derek Walcott’s poetry to selfies, Cole points his lens onto an impressive range of topics. Teju Cole sees. And in this collection, it is his seeing that graciously invites our own.

Cole’s prose is stunning. He weaves astonishing observations into riveting sentences that bloom into pensive and tender, yet contained, essays—some of which are no more than a few pages long. These essays do not need to be read in any particular order. It is best to encounter the book according to your own mood. He writes in a masterful lyrical style, with a cadence that is steeped in obvious depth and passion. Teju Cole’s words possess a certain, rare profundity. Every period at the end of a sentence is not the sign of the end of a thought, but an invitation for more engagement, more interrogation. It would be impossible to contain all the quotable lines and phrases in this review. There are simply too many outstanding and poignant observations. It is safe to say that Teju Cole is a tremendously gifted writer and thinker. Despite the vast topical variety, his consistent voice manages to thread this collection together. For the quality of writing, alone, this book is outstanding.

Perhaps the strongest essays are those focused on photography. Cole demonstrates a precise and technical understanding of photography as an art form and as a social force. Furthermore, his pieces on poetry are considerate and luminous. Part investigative journalist, Cole points his inquisitive lens to poignant corners of the globe and offers snapshots of lives and incidents from his sharply trained perspective. He is also skilled at exposing ironies. This expertise is particularly evident in “A Reader’s War,” in which he attempts to reconcile President Obama’s love for literature with his political “love” for drones.

Highlights include “A Piece of the Wall” (a sobering journey into the Mexican migration crisis’ epicenter), “Brazilian Earth” (a meditation on Brazil’s legacy of slavery), “A Better Quality of Agony” (moving reconsiderations of grief), “A True Picture of Black Skin” (a historical look at photography’s treatment of brown skin), “Black Body” (an interrogation of blackness vis-à-vis James Baldwin’s 1951 visit to Leukerbad), “Captivity” (a harrowing reflection on the kidnapped Chibok girls of Nigeria) and the refreshingly humorous “In Place of Thought” (Cole’s own, associative dictionary).

I am certain the editors struggled to compile the 51 essays into a logical, flowing order. This challenge was apparent when it came to the inclusion of essays that were too specific, like “Housing Mr. Biswas” and “Double Negative.” Both were originally published as introductions to books. These essays—while excellent alone—lack the breadth of his others and, perhaps, should have been left out.

It must be noted—and perhaps it should have been more clearly noted—that all of the essays in this book have previously been published in major news/media outlets like The Atlantic and The New York Times. I was under the impression that all of the essays in this book were new. However, they are not. In fact, many can be found on the internet. Before you read this book, it is essential to know that it is a collection of previous work, not a specifically curated group of complementary essays.

Interestingly, the epilogue is a sobering meditation on Cole’s own, literal sight. When he points the lens right at himself—he holds a mirror up to us. By seeing him, we are able to see ourselves more clearly. Overall, Known and Strange Things is a beautiful glimpse into Cole’s peculiar mind. His ability to interrogate—and his courage to let some questions go unanswered—is what makes this collection so brilliant. As he eloquently reminds us in “Natives on the Boat”:

     “At certain heights, you get vertigo, but you also see what you otherwise might not.”