Teju Cole: The Book That Changed My Life

Credit: Courtesy Teju Cole

Teju Cole may be best known for his fiction — namely Every Day is For the Thief and Open City — but Cole is also the photography critic for the New York Times Magazine and a prolific writer of nonfiction. His latest book, Known and Strange Things shows off this side, with essays on the aesthetics of photography, questions of nationality and identity, and his experiences traveling everywhere from Brazil to Alabama. It’s an immersive experience into a wide-ranging set of concerns, memorably conveyed onto the page. We talked with Cole about his writing, and the book that’s made the most significant impact on his life.

Is there one book that’s affected you tremendously or changed your life?

Let me suggest a book called Here Is Where We Meet. It’s by a writer called John Berger. It was pretty life-changing for me. It’s a collection of short stories; it has eight and a half short stories. They’re all based on life, but they’re all fiction. It’s the way that he handles that fictionality that really affected my writing.

John Berger is quite an old man; he’s in his eighties. What he does in these stories is, he’ll write a story about someone he once knew who is now dead. He tells true stories about how he knows them or what they mean to him, but the stories are about encounters he has with them after they’ve died. Things like meeting his long-dead mother in Lisbon and going for a walk with her. It feels very diaristic and very real. The porousness of that border between what we can prove, what’s easily accessible, and what takes more face and openness — it was really interesting to me, how he handled that. He doesn’t take it from a religious point of view at all.

When did you first encounter the book?

The book was first published in 2005, but I’ve been reading Berger since the late '90s. I really like his work. He’s a wonderful art critic; he writes about politics, and he also writes fiction. I was already very much a fan of his work, so when this book came out, I was going to get it anyway. So I probably got it around 2006 or thereabouts, or maybe right after it came out in 2005.

One of the essays in your collection talks about Berger, and an encounter he’d had when sketching in a museum. Was it challenging for you to take a writer who’s been an influence on you and turn him into the subject of a piece?

It was. When I agreed to review the book, one of the big questions was, "What if I don’t like this particular book?" I’ve liked almost everything else by him that I’d read, but what if I didn’t like this one? I did like the book, so I was able to play fair. I wouldn’t write anything untruthful, although there’s not really any point in also being harshly critical, especially of someone whose body of work one respects. But I like that book. It’s called Bento’s Sketchbook. One of the things I liked about it was the way that so many of my interests overlap with his. In this case, extending into sketching and into that kind of engagement that you have with artworks, where it inspires you to make your own art. That was a nice piece to write. In fact, there’s a new book by him, a compilation of his writings on art called Portraits, that I’m reading at the moment. He’s always very much in my mind. Just this morning, I saw a newspaper feature where someone was asking Tilda Swinton about her favorite books, and she mentioned the book I had reviewed, Bento’s Sketchbook.

Like you, Berger writes about art and literature and politics. Your new collection explores all three of these topics. Is Berger someone whose work you’ve looked to as far as the overlap of the three?

I think what we get from the artists, writers, musicians, photographers, and so on who we admire is a sense of encouragement or permission to go ahead and do whatever it is that was maybe latent in us already. For me, range was always one of those things. That’s just how you live. Life is made up of many different things, and to artificially suppress some aspect of it and say, “I’m just the guy who does jokes — I don’t do politics,” or, “I’m just the guy who writes beautiful, melancholy narratives, but I don’t do scholarly analysis.”

I don’t see the sense of dividing those things, and I always admired John Berger’s willingness to get his hands dirty, and yet to not seem as though he was getting his hands dirty. Of course, it’s all propelled by his prose, and his ability to write extremely beautiful and moving English, even when he’s talking about really tough things. His work is visceral, it’s engaged, it’s political, it’s very fierce. But while you’re reading it, the impression you have is someone whose words are very, very well-chosen. To work with a very wide range of material was always something natural to me, and [it’s] very encouraging to see other writers who were able to do it successfully.

There’s a sign outside West African barber shops that says, “Specialists in All Styles.” Rather than the dismissive “jack of all trades,” as we have in the English language, I like this idea of “specialist in all styles.”

Known and Strange Things covers a very impressive range of topics. Are there subjects that you’d like to write about more in the future that you haven’t written about much already?

There are two things where I feel a bit of a gap for me. One is political economy in general, and finance in particular. I know a little bit about it, but I’d like to know a lot more. The other thing is coding, which I think is one of the essential languages of the time. I just don’t know coding; I don’t know the inner workings of it. I want to read more about it. I think the world that has been made by computer programs has its own inner logic that’s extremely important to the way that our world is structured and the way that it unfolds these days. Knowing more about that would be great. As you can see from my essays, I’m a little bit interested in tech and the ways it plays into people’s lives, but I think I want to have a more intimate knowledge of that.