Book Review: Up Late with Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things

Up Late with Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things

So I still have that literary crush on Teju Cole, but it may have turned into full-blown fangirl status with his latest book, filled with brilliant essays, titled Known and Strange Things. I would argue Teju Cole’s work represents the voice of a generation–but more than that, the voice of our time, regardless of age.  His essays include personal narratives and travel writing and analysis of art and current issues and in each one I found myself scribbling notes furiously. Sometimes it was a turn of a phrase, somethings an insightful observation, and sometimes (most times) I found myself creating a list of authors, artists, and texts I needed to read/view/research immediately.

Teju Cole is like your super-smart well-read friend who always refers to books and ideas in a non-pretentious way and makes you wish you were as smart as they were. But you can’t be jealous of their brilliance, because without them, you wouldn’t know about all the interesting things they share with you.  Cole does not hold back on his criticism of those he finds lacking, but his work is fresh–unlike those he chastises here: “There are many standard formulations in our language, which stand in place of thought, but we proclaim them each time–due to laziness, prejudice, or hypocrisy–as though they were fresh insight.”

His credo is hard not to agree with: “What do I believe in? Imagination, gardens, science, poetry, love, and a variety of nonviolent consolations. I suspect that in aggregate all this isn’t enough, but it’s where I am for now.”

And his observations are compelling, and yet make sense–they are ideas we have not yet discovered we even had, until he utters them and makes us aware of our thoughts. For example, his comment that “All technology arises out of specific social circumstances” leads to his question “What is the fate of art in the age of metastasized mechanical reproduction?” And I want to know, what is the fate of art in this age?  You might find one answer by following Cole on twitter, which, I would argue is just as artistic as any of his full texts.  As he himself notes, “curation and juxtaposition are basic artistic gestures,” so the way he curates his social media is thus, by extension, a work of art. Sadly, he’s been on hiatus from twitter after his brilliant World Cup tweets in 2014.3e4c2106-58ef-11e6-89cf-11d50d057da5-300x464

You might find his thoughts about voting particularly important in this election year: “we participate in things not because they are ideal but because they are not,” or perhaps you might be transported by his idea that placing ourselves where our artistic forebears went before us can connect us in deep ways: “When I’m moved by something, I want to literally put myself in its place, the better to understand what was transformed.”

Finally, reading his writing was like immersing myself into deep water, trying to hold my breath longer in order to see the underwater delights: I had to keep surfacing, take a breath, take a break, take some notes, and then inhale deeply and dive back into the essays–which make this pausing a little easier than if this were a novel. Cole even writes about composing with a similar metaphor:”Writing as diving: an exhilaration, a compression, a depression.”

Reading this book, I found myself wanting to copy different essays to share with colleagues, students, and friends. Do yourself a favor and get your hands on a copy to read immediately–you won’t regret it, and you’ll probably end up adding a bunch of books to your to-read list based on his recommendations.

Posted by Kate, VP Secondary, PCTELA

Book Review: Up Late with Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things

Up Late with Teju Cole’s Open City

Let’s face it, just like my students, sometimes I develop crushes…except for me, these are literary crushes.  For a while, I was a little in love with Neil Gaiman.  Then I crushed on Richard Russo, which only let up when I moved on to Neal Stephenson.  More recently I was totally into Colson Whitehead, but he since been replaced by my current crush: Teju Cole.  I first found him on twitter, and then decided I needed to read Open City. This is one of the more cerebral novels I’ve read lately, and I tried to savor it rather than devour it, the way I normally do with books. So many reasons to celebrate this book–one being the reference to my favorite Hamlet line: “the birds in flight were proof that we, too, were under heaven’s protection, that there is indeed a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”

There are few books that delve into philosophy, art, death, identity, politics, and life in the way this one does. The narrator, a young Nigerian psychologist, walks through the streets of New York, and interacts with the denizens of the city, all the while contemplating his interactions. 

One of my favorite elements of the storyline was the friendship Julius had with Saito, his former English professor. The visits Julius had with him made me think about my own future, and wonder if someday I might have former students visit me when I am in old age, failing in health, but strong in mind. 

It isn’t just the content of this text that made Teju Cole my new literary crush–the style was transfixing and simultaneously energizing. His use of language with such precision, joy, and novelty enchanted me. I especially loved the motif of birds–he bookends the story with images of birds in the city. I think, perhaps, the birds are the most significant motif woven throughout, when I look back at that Hamlet quote he slid in there. 

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in art, thought, language, and just a good book to marinate about even when you’re not reading it.  

  Posted by Kate, VP Secondary Schools k1a9t7e5


Up Late with Teju Cole’s Open City