“Salinger’s Holden Caulfield made a distinction between writers you would like to call on the phone and those you wouldn’t care to talk to at all. Teju Cole belongs to the former group.”
Those words were written by the author Aleksandar Hemon, and they’re proven true by Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole’s companionable new essay collection. Again and again in this gathering of more than 40 pieces, Cole demonstrates an appealing blend of erudition and affability—a quality that makes him unique as an essayist.
The author of the award-winning novel Open City, Cole was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. He returned to the states for college, focusing on art history and photography. Both subjects figure prominently in these essays, which are organized into three categories: “Reading Things,” “Seeing Things” and “Being There.”
In the wistful “Far Away from Here,” Cole considers themes of home and dislocation during a visit to Switzerland, where he photographs the landscape in a process he describes as “thinking with my eyes about the country around me.” In unflinching essays like “Black Body” and “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” he examines contemporary perceptions of race, invoking the work of James Baldwin along the way.
An understated and lyrical stylist, Cole combines the rigor of a critic with the curiosity of Everyman. “We are creatures of private conventions,” he writes. “But we are also looking for ways to enlarge our coasts.” This collection provides a way.