A Burning Collection

Rob Stothard
Teju Cole on the outskirts of Ramallah during the Palestine Festival of Literature, June 2014

Teju Cole is a kind of realm. He has written three books—two exceptional novels and the volume of essays to be considered here—as well as many uncollected essays, interviews, newspaper columns, and a vast online oeuvre made up of skeins of tweets on fixed themes, faits divers, e-mail arguments, captioned Instagrams, mixed media exercises, and rants. At the moment he is credited with more than 13,000 tweets, 263,000 Twitter followers, 1,035 photos, and around 22,000 fans who officially like his Facebook page. Even in a time when many writers are enlarging their literary footprints by means of the Internet, he is a prodigy.

There is a strong interconnectedness between the different parts of his work. Cole’s personal story, sometimes given straight, sometimes fictionalized, pervades. The bicultural Teju Cole was born in the US in 1975, raised in Nigeria until his seventeenth year, brought back to America where he first studied art and attended medical school, and then went abroad to study African art history; he later studied Northern Renaissance art at Columbia. His initial novels brought him a storm of prizes and attention. He is currently a writer in residence at Bard College and the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine and is himself an exhibiting photographer. Cole has said in an interview that the essays on photography in this collection, which also collects many of his writings on literature, travel, politics, and art, are the most important of his writings.

Cole is very conscious of the difference between what one might think of as books aimed at a presumed posterity and his online works, aimed at a real-time and frequently interactive fandom. He discusses this subject in a conversation with the novelist Aleksandar Hemon in the first group of essays in Known and Strange Things. “For sure,” he says,

some of the smartest and most interesting literary minds of our generation and the generations to come will work in areas that are not “books” as we currently think of them…. But I think some of these people will also write books.

Cole’s essays are brilliantly written—sharp, intelligent—and yield a pleasurable sweetness. His prose, in its variations, is impeccably where he wants it to be. His erudition is put to work humbly. But in encountering these essays, perhaps the most important quality to grasp is Cole’s deep sense of the seriousness of life, which is sustained in different registers throughout. Rotating through his compositions, and sometimes shouldering aside their announced subjects, is an array of thematic problems routinely confounding to the educated secular leftcentric urban readerships of today. Here are two examples among the many that Cole discusses. One: In a world that is post-credal, post-religion, and post-socialism, in what should humanism be grounded? Two: When liberal empires…

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