authors | July 07, 2016

First Look: Teju Cole’s New Book, Known and Strange Things

Author and photographer Teju Cole is perhaps best known for his works of fiction: Every Day Is for the Thief, a New York Times Book of the Year, and Open City, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award. But in Known and Strange Things, Cole delivers his first nonfiction effort, an enthralling collection of essays that unpacks contemporary issues—among them, politics, literature, history, and photography—through a refreshing lens that is equal parts historical and modern. With subjects ranging from James Baldwin to Shakespeare to Barack Obama, Known and Strange Things is a curiously varied anthology, but one tied deftly together by Cole’s originality, intelligence, and contagious passion.

Known and Strange Things comprises three distinct sections. “Reading Things” is an ode to writers; the works of W. G. Sebald, Sonali Deraniyagala, and Tomas Tranströmer, among others, grace its pages. “Seeing Things” turns its eye on photographers, from places as diverse as France, Mali, Russia, and South Africa, and on photography itself. Cole’s brilliant dissection of visual art is nothing new—his monthly “On Photography” column in The New York Times Magazine attests to his love and knowledge of the craft. The book’s third section, “Being There,” is one of unforeseen connections. “Unnamed Lake,” one of its chapters, follows Cole during a sleepless night, as his mind strings together seemingly disparate events: the death of the last Tasmanian tiger, a nautical disaster in Bangladesh, the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, a Nazi performance of Beethoven, and a Nigerian military coup. 


In advance reviews, Known and Strange Things has received considerable praise. Kirkus, in a starred review, calls it “A striking collection of essays that will leave readers wanting to reimagine our contemporary environment ... A bold, honest, and controversially necessary read.” Publishers Weekly attests that “Cole is a literary performance artist, his words meticulously chosen and deployed with elegance and force. To read, see, and travel with him is to be changed by the questions that challenge him.” And if his first two books are any indication, Known and Strange Things will be well worth a read.


Born in the US and raised in Nigeria, Teju Cole is the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College and the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine. His novella, Every Day Is for the Thief, has been “widely praised as one of the best fictional depictions of Africa in recent memory” (The New Yorker) and was named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times, The Telegraph, The Globe and Mail, and NPR. Most recently, he introduced the photography of LaToya Ruby Frazier in the latest issue of Aperture magazine, “Vision & Justice,” dedicated to images that influence the collective consciousness of African American experiences.  

Until Known and Strange Things is released on August 9, here’s the description from the publisher, Penguin Random House:


A blazingly intelligent first book of essays from the award-winning author of Open City and Every Day Is for the Thief.


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.


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