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Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole
In this collection of essays, Teju Cole ranges across literature, art and politics. As a writer, photographer and art historian, Cole ranges widely. The essays, first published in the New York Times Magazine, are 55 moments of lucid thought: some are personal responses to Cole’s travels, his interest in photography and his fascination with several authors, while others are pointed commentary and questions about politics and society and the ways in which artists and writers interpret or present a viewpoint. Teju Cole has his opinions and these are intelligent missives. The essays are arranged in three sections. ‘Reading Things’ includes an interesting interaction with V.S.Naipaul, and a search for W.G. Sebald’s grave which is charmingly reminiscent of Sebald’s own work. As Cole ventures out across Norfolk with Jason the taxi driver, he is simultaneously journeying with Sebald. ‘Seeing Things’ deals with visual observations, predominantly contemporary photography. Here Cole’s ability and knowledge as a photographer gives this section real depth, and his ability to appreciate as well as add critical interpretation of the photographer’s intention raises some thought-provoking questions about the role of visual observation, the ability of a photograph to capture a moment and the lies that images can be. Cole looks at photographers who exhibit in art galleries alongside those who use google and instagram as a platform to communicate their work. The third section ‘Being There’ is firmly rooted in place and travel. The essays are fine examples of ponderings on politics and society, and in many of them Cole ventures into the conversation around racial politics in Africa, America and Europe. His interests range widely in this section - there are essays about drone warfare, terrorism’s personal impact, home and belonging. The first essay in this section, ‘Far Away from Home’, is a gem — Cole is in Switzerland and is overcome with an unexpected fascination with the Alps and the idea of Fernweh (a German expression meaning ‘one simply wants to be far away’). Teju Cole’s essays are places where you can journey — he pulls his ideas together with references to writing, art and history, giving texture to the well-constructed sentences. They are provocative, stimulating and rewarding.