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Rebecca Foster

Nigerian-American photographer and art historian Teju Cole is known for two impressionistic novellas, “Open City” and “Every Day Is for the Thief,” whose narrators wander the streets of Manhattan or Lagos in search of self-knowledge. With a strong social media presence, he has become a respected commentator on art, politics and literature.

“Known and Strange Things: Essays” collects 55 short pieces — drawn from the author’s prolific output during eight years of near-constant travel and writing — under three headings: literature, the visual arts and travel. Part I, “Reading Things,” holds the most appeal for fans of his novels. Alongside straightforward book reviews are essays in which he engages with his literary heroes. During six months in Switzerland he recalls James Baldwin’s sense of being the only black man on Earth there; at a Manhattan dinner party he sets aside his qualms to express admiration for V.S. Naipaul; and, on an impromptu pilgrimage to W.G. Sebald’s grave, he pays tribute to this “teacher I never knew, the friend I met only posthumously.”

Mr. Cole writes an “On Photography” column for The New York Times magazine. His visual arts essays testify to the breadth of his familiarity, from a Kenyan collagist to an obscure Russian photographer. Even when discussing mainstream subjects like civil rights art, he always finds a new angle — ...

Nigerian-American photographer and art historian Teju Cole is known for two impressionistic novellas, “Open City” and “Every Day Is for the Thief,” whose narrators wander the streets of Manhattan or Lagos in search of self-knowledge. With a strong social media presence, he has become a respected commentator on art, politics and literature.

“Known and Strange Things: Essays” collects 55 short pieces — drawn from the author’s prolific output during eight years of near-constant travel and writing — under three headings: literature, the visual arts and travel. Part I, “Reading Things,” holds the most appeal for fans of his novels. Alongside straightforward book reviews are essays in which he engages with his literary heroes. During six months in Switzerland he recalls James Baldwin’s sense of being the only black man on Earth there; at a Manhattan dinner party he sets aside his qualms to express admiration for V.S. Naipaul; and, on an impromptu pilgrimage to W.G. Sebald’s grave, he pays tribute to this “teacher I never knew, the friend I met only posthumously.”

Mr. Cole writes an “On Photography” column for The New York Times magazine. His visual arts essays testify to the breadth of his familiarity, from a Kenyan collagist to an obscure Russian photographer. Even when discussing mainstream subjects like civil rights art, he always finds a new angle — here remarking on the challenges of photographing black skin. Throughout, these are the authoritative pronouncements of an expert. He even waxes Tolstoyan: “All bad photos are alike, but each good photograph is good in its own way.” No stuffy traditionalist, he also embraces new techniques such as phone photography and work based around Google Earth imagery. At the same time, he is troubled by sinister forms of technology, such as online videos of violent deaths.

A 400-page book of disparate essays is a hard ask, and even visual arts aficionados may struggle through the long middle section. All the same, patience will be rewarded by Part III, “Being There,” in which Mr. Cole deftly blends memoir and travelogue. Again and again he reflects on displacement and ambiguity. Born in Michigan but raised in Nigeria, he returned to Kalamazoo to attend college, a journey that represented “the opposite of exile” but dredged up no memories. “Citizenship is an act of the imagination,” he concludes — more a choice than an accident of birth.

As an American of African descent, the author feels a certain rapport with President Barack Obama, for whom he proudly voted in 2008. In a subsequent essay, though, he criticizes the president’s sanctioning of drone attacks. “I write all this from multiple positions,” he insists in a piece born out of a controversial series of tweets, “The White Savior Industrial Complex.” The pattern here, as in later travel pieces from Palestine and the Texas-Mexico border, is to build up a nuanced judgment but not shy away from plain speaking.

Although erudite and wide-ranging, these essays are not quite as successful as, say, Julian Barnes’ or Geoff Dyer’s in making any and every topic interesting to laymen. Still, Mr. Cole proves himself a modern Renaissance man, interweaving experience and opinion in rigorous yet conversational pieces that illuminate the arts.

In an epilogue markedly similar to “Open City,” he recalls walking aimlessly through New York City during an episode of partial blindness. Although his eye trouble will most likely recur, it’s always possible to extract Virginia Woolf’s “moments of being” from an imperfect life. Indeed, his adage from an earlier essay applies here and should be taken to heart this election cycle: “We participate in things not because they are ideal but because they are not.”

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