Known and Strange Things

Teju Cole

This collection of essays is divided into three sections — “Reading Things,” “Seeing Things,” and “Being There” — and for me they progress from the least cohesive to the most cohesive. Many of the literary essays feel more like sketches than fully fleshed out essays, and I slowly worked through these over the summer before lulling out when I was partway through the “Seeing Things” section. When I came back to Known and Strange Things, I found myself in the middle of an essay about the photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov, which is mostly about his work on Instagram, though Teju Cole broadens the lens to inquire what photography means now that the barrier for entry has essentially disappeared:

All bad photos are alike, but each good photograph is good in its own way. The bad photos have found their apotheosis on social media, where everybody is a photographer and where we have to suffer through each other’s “photography” the way our forebears endured terrible recitations of poetry after dinner. Behind this dispiriting stream of empty images is what Russians call poshlost: fake emotion, unearned nostalgia. According to Nabokov, poshlost “is not only the obviously trash but mainly the falsely important. the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive.” He knows us too well.

Cole has particularly significant insight into the subject of photography and photographers — not surprising as he is currently the photography critic of The New York Times. In “Memories of Things Unseen,” which considers the photograph as an archival object, he says that one “selects, out of the flow of time, a moment to be preserved, with the moments before and after falling away like sheer cliffs.” Later he admits that there is a downside to this preservation in the context of today’s technology:

Our own appearances and faces are now stored and saved in hundreds, thousands, of photographs: photographs made by ourselves, photographs made by others. Our faces are becoming not only unforgettable but inescapable. There is so much documentation of each life, each scene and event, that the effect of this incessant visual notation becomes difficult to distinguish from surveillance.

Yet “Being There” was my favorite section overall, as it’s here that Cole situates himself into specific locales, whether familiar to him or quite distant, and the essays feel much more personal rather than blandly critical, though a few are more journalistic in scope. From a six-month residency in Switzerland, to being in NYC on the day Barack Obama was elected to his first term as president, to visiting places of civil rights importance in Alabama, he offers his experience as a kind of dual citizen in the world. He was born in the US to Nigerian parents, mostly grew up in Nigeria, and as an adult has lived in the US for many years. So he experiences life in the US as a citizen but still a bit of an outsider; often perceived as African-American but not actually having that familial history. He thinks about James Baldwin as he photographs landscapes in Switzerland, queries whether literature can be a civilizing force in the context of fiction-reading President Obama’s drone program, and puzzles over the racial divides he witnesses in multicultural Rio de Janeiro.

As a collection there are definitely high and low points, and some pieces could have been edited out entirely for a tighter book as a whole. But all together these works show Cole as a notable thinker with a rich perspective.

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