Known and Strange Things: Essays

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Random House, 2016 - Literary Collections - 393 pages
3 Reviews
A blazingly intelligent first book of essays from the award-winning author of Open City and Every Day Is for the Thief

Time * The Guardian * Harper's Bazaar * San Francisco Chronicle * The Atlantic * Financial Times * Kirkus

Finalist for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay and PEN/Jean Stein Book Award

With this collection of more than fifty pieces on politics, photography, travel, history, and literature, Teju Cole solidifies his place as one of today's most powerful and original voices. On page after page, deploying prose dense with beauty and ideas, he finds fresh and potent ways to interpret art, people, and historical moments, taking in subjects from Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare, and W. G. Sebald to Instagram, Barack Obama, and Boko Haram. Cole brings us new considerations of James Baldwin in the age of Black Lives Matter; the African American photographer Roy DeCarava, who, forced to shoot with film calibrated exclusively for white skin tones, found his way to a startling and true depiction of black subjects; and (in an essay that inspired both praise and pushback when it first appeared) the White Savior Industrial Complex, the system by which African nations are sentimentally aided by an America "developed on pillage."

Persuasive and provocative, erudite yet accessible, Known and Strange Things is an opportunity to live within Teju Cole's wide-ranging enthusiasms, curiosities, and passions, and a chance to see the world in surprising and affecting new frames.

Praise for Known and Strange Things

"On every level of engagement and critique, Known and Strange Things is an essential and scintillating journey."--Claudia Rankine, The New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice)

"A heady mix of wit, nostalgia, pathos, and a genuine desire to untangle the world, or at the least, to bask in its unending riddles."--The Atlantic

"Brilliant . . . [Known and Strange Things] reveals Cole's extraordinary talent and his capacious mind."--Time

"[Known and Strange Things] showcases the magnificent breadth of subjects [Cole] is able to plumb with . . . passion and eloquence."--Harper's Bazaar

"[Cole is] one of the most vibrant voices in contemporary writing."--LA Times

"Cole has fulfilled the dazzling promise of his novels Every Day Is for the Thief and Open City. He ranges over his interests with voracious keenness, laser-sharp prose, an open heart and a clear eye."--The Guardian

"Remarkably probing essays . . . Cole is one of only a very few lavishing his focused attention on that most approachable (and perhaps therefore most overlooked) art form, photography."--Chicago Tribune

"There's almost no subject Cole can't come at from a startling angle. . . . His [is a] prickly, eclectic, roaming mind."--The Boston Globe

"[Cole] brings a subtle, layered perspective to all he encounters."--Vanity Fair

"In page after page, Cole upholds the sterling virtue of good writing combined with emotional and intellectual engagement."--The New Statesman

"[Known and Strange Things possesses] a passion for justice, a deep sympathy for the poor and the powerless around the world, and a fiery moral outrage."--Poets and Writers

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - bookmuse56 - LibraryThing

An impressive collection of elegantly written essays! I have read a couple of fiction books by Teju Cole and was interesting in reading his essay collection to see if his nonfiction writing would shed ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - bezoar44 - LibraryThing

This book is divided into three sections: essays about literature; about photography; and about politics and travel. Teju Cole is a rarity, an artist intellectual, in the best sense - his breadth ... Read full review


Black Body
Poetry of the Disregarded
A Better Quality of Agony
Double Negative
A Conversation with Aleksandar Hemon
Unnamed Lake
Wangechi Mutu
John Berger
Home Strange Home
Madmen and Specialists
Kofi Awoonor
In Alabama
Brazilian Earth
Angels in Winter
Shadows in São Paulo
The White Savior Industrial Complex

A True Picture of Black Skin
Perfect and Unrehearsed
Memories of Things Unseen
Far Away from Here
Perplexed Perplexed

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About the author (2016)

Angels in Winter

 Dear Beth,

Our first sight of land came from Lazio''s farms, a green different from American green, less neon-bright, more troubled with brown. Later, on the express train into town, the impression was strengthened by the scattering of pines, palms, and cypresses along the tracks. I became aware for the first time of how plant life is part of the story of being in a foreign place. As the eye adjusts to different buildings and different uses of technology, as the ear begins to find its way into the local dialect, the flora, too, present a challenge to the senses. Here, the biome projected a certain obstinacy: these plants had struggled against both human culture and hot weather for a long time.

It wasn''t hot the day we arrived. It was cool, the fog interleaved with rain, spoiling visibility.
A woman from Verona, her ticket on her lap, sat across from us. She wore a business suit and sunglasses, and had the slight impatience of early morning work--related travel. On the other side of the aisle was a middle-aged couple, the man in a blue tracksuit (which at the belly strained to contain him). Facing them, a sharply dressed young man in dark blue suit, powder--blue shirt, and skinny black tie spoke loudly into the telephone--"Pronto! Sì, sì. Sì, sì, sì! Andiamo, ciao, ciao!"--a clipped bare-bones negotiation. There was a performative busyness in his torrent of sì''s; negotium, the negation of pleasure.

Italy is a Third World country. It has the ostentatious contrasts as well as the brittle pride. The greenery of Fiumicino quickly gave way to abandoned buildings with rusted roofs. We rumbled by a necropolis of wrecked cars in a wide yard, beyond which were muddy roads stretching back into the country and ceasing to be roads, become just muddy fields. On the culverts and walls, as those became more numerous, graffiti artists were indefatigable, covering every available surface. The tags were beautiful: they answered to the ancient ruins. The ruins themselves were as elaborate as stretches of aqueduct, or as simple as sections of broken wall. Their size as well as their integration into the landscape was the first real sign of the ubiquity of the past in Rome. In many places this past was elaborated and curated (as I would soon discover), but in others it was entirely untouched, the material relics simply remaining there, a testament to thousands of years of decay, an echo of the wealth and greatness of the people who lived here.

The suburban tenements soon appeared, festooned with washing, and increasingly small patches of open land on which flocks of tough-looking sheep grazed. By the time we arrived at Termini, the rain had begun again, this time heavily. We knew which bus we wanted, but there were no bus maps (everyone else seemed to know where to go). Finding the right embarkation point consisted of walking from one section of the parking lot to another, and we were drenched by the time we did find it. But time quickened, and we were soon inside Rome proper, in the Esquiline (one of the original seven hills), inside what felt like a gigantic Cinecittà set.

I was intoxicated by the visual impression of the place: the large well-laid-out squares, the dilapidated but elegant buildings, the Vespas, the mid--century modern feel of much of the signage, the ragged edges on everything (for some reason all this made me think of Julian Schnabel). It was alluring, even in winter, perhaps especially in winter, with the colors warm and bold (orange, red, and yellow), but somewhat desaturated. As we passed through Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, I noted the gargantuan scale of the built environment, and the profusion of ornament.
Both scale and ornament are related to history. "The classics" are not homogeneous. But what distinguishes Roman art from Greek art? I go with this impression: the Greeks were idealists, invested in the perfection of form, fixated on eternity. Isn''t the way people die in the Iliad, sorrowfully but not without a certain dignity, part of the attraction? I thought of your love for the Greeks, Beth, which is related to this dignity. The Romans, who later adopted their forms with a startling exactness--much of what we know of Greek art is from Roman copies--were more grounded: they got more complicatedly into the preexisting questions of political advantage, obsequy, national honor, and, of course, empire. Propaganda became more vivid than ever. And so, the buildings got larger and more ornate, lurid even, ostensibly to honor the gods or the predecessor rulers (many of whom were deified), but in reality as guarantees of personal glory. The Greeks loved philosophy for its own sake, more or less, but the Romans loved it for what it could be used for, namely political power. This at least was the way I understood it--you''ll forgive a traveler''s generalizations.

Roman propaganda, the manipulation of images for political ends, hadn''t begun with Augustus, Julius Caesar''s successor and the first of the emperors, but he''d certainly brought it to a keen level. He''d enlisted architects and sculptors for the project of transforming him from violent claimant to the leadership--a position for which he was neither more nor less qualified than his main rival, Mark Antony--to Pater Patriae. The message, which got through, was that he was not merely fatherly but also avuncular. He was powerful, well loved, generous, and his leadership was inevitable.

Augustus''s successful marshaling of art to the shaping of his image was the template for just about every emperor who came afterward. The skill and subtlety of Roman art, from the first-century emperors to Constantine in the fourth, was for the most part dedicated to dynastic and propagandistic goals. Was there after all, I asked myself, so great a leap between imperial Rome and the buffoonery of Mussolini? The misuse of piety was no new thing.

And so, on that first day, heading out in the late afternoon to the Capitoline Hill--the ancient site of an important temple to Jupiter, now a set of museums around a Michelangelo-designed piazza--I was braced for a mental separation between art and its public functions. I came up Michelangelo''s broad, ramped staircase, past the monumental sculptures of Castor and Pollux, into the glistening egg-shaped piazza. The rain had ceased. Not many people were around. I had my arsenal of doubts at the ready.

But I want to set parentheses around this essay, Beth. It''s no good pretending that, in going to Rome in 2009, one has gone to some exotic corner of the earth. Rome was as central a center of the world as there has been in this world. And now that there are many centers, it remains one of the important ones. So, I want to acknowledge not only that millions of other visitors do what I just did--visit Rome as tourists or pilgrims--but that this has been going on for a great long while. Those visitors have included many of the world''s best writers, and, in addition, many of the world''s great writers have been themselves Romans. I am unlikely to write anything new or penetrating about Rome. In writing about Rome, I am writing about art and history and politics, and how those things relate particularly to me, a solitary observer with a necessarily narrow, a necessarily shallow, view of the place. Rome is simply the pretext, and the font of specifics, for the discontinuous thoughts of a first-time traveler.

And while I''m at it, I also want to question the very possibility of writing anything about a people, in this particular case Romans. Is it possible, I wonder, to write a sentence that begins "Romans are . . . ," and have such a sentence be interesting and truthful at the same time? We are properly skeptical of gen-eralizations, after a lifetime of "blacks are . . . ," "women are . . . ," "Indians are . . . ," "Pakistanis are . . ."

But an important part of the Roman enterprise, historically speaking, was the effort to characterize Rome and what it meant to be a Roman. This went beyond local pride, and also beyond imperial ambition. It was a certain relationship to fellow citizens and to the state, a relationship aided by war and by oratory. Principles were important, they were fought over if necessary, and any and all hypocrisies had to be practiced under the aegis of the principles. The motto SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus: a reminder that a given enterprise or monument was there at the pleasure of the senate and people of Rome) simply manifested the principles at stake.

Rome followed the example of Athens in this (think of Pericles''s funeral oration, which had more sly jingoism than an American campaign speech) and would herself later serve as exemplum for the American experiment. Before American exceptionalism, there was Roman exceptionalism, to a much more severe degree. Our Capitol is named for the Capitoline Hill. Close parentheses.

Thus primed with my skepticism, a skepticism compounded with an anticolonial instinct, I entered the museums on the Capitoline Hill. Well: so much for preparation. I was floored. My theories simply had no chance against what I experienced--the finest collection of classical statuary I had ever seen. The strength of the collection was not limited to the famous pieces--the Capitoline Venus, the Dying Gaul, the Colossus of Constantine--wonderful though they were. There were countless other sculptures, including several, such as a standing Hermes, that would have been the proud centerpieces of lesser collections. The patron of boundaries wore his winged hat and winged sandals, held a caduceus in his hand--what a wonder to

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