Teju Cole can seduce you a dozen ways. As a writer who refuses to be boxed in by the conventions of genre, he blurs the boundaries between fiction and memoir, sprinkling in just enough tidbits from his own life to leave you wanting more. His essays cover an astonishing range of subjects, from favorite writers like W.G. Sebald and James Baldwin to photography, travel and the politics of race and nationality. His interests veer between aesthetics and politics, and he writes about both as the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine.
The pleasure of dipping into Cole’s work is encountering an extremely fertile mind. He seems instinctively drawn to creative work that’s fragmentary in nature rather than fully-formed worlds. Perhaps it’s no surprise that he turned Twitter into an art form. But just when Cole developed a huge Twitter following, he abandoned it. “I try to find out what I can do in that space,” he told me, “and then without any compunction or regret I move on.”
His latest experiment is Blind Spot, a strange hybrid of photography book and essay collection. Cole has traveled everywhere and come back to tell us what he’s seen, and it’s all filtered through his distinctive perspective – part Nigerian, part American and thoroughly cosmopolitan.
He recently came to Madison to speak at the University of Wisconsin, and shortly before his lecture, he stopped by my recording studio for an interview. Like he always does, Cole was carrying a camera. This one was his small Fujifilm X70 digital camera, one of nine cameras he owns. I asked if he uses them all. “Yeah. It’s helpful to have different tools,” he said. “Each one makes you shoot a little differently and opens up another seam in your head.”
We talked about what he likes in photographs, his dislike of artistic boundaries, the complexities of racial identity, and his roots in both Lagos and New York.
Steve Paulson: You always seem to be looking around and taking photos of the places you go, but you’ve called your new book Blind Spot. What does that title refer to?
Teju Cole: Well, if you’re looking a lot, at some point you become aware of the limitations of looking. It’s just like being a writer. At some point you understand there are things that words can accomplish and then there’s a moment when words cannot help you. Looking has been so central to my way of being in the world that it goes a little bit beyond the conventional. But I was also very much into art as a kid. And I’ve got three university degrees and they’re all in art history.
Art history is basically about looking closely and trying to give an account of what you’re looking at from the art tradition. Then I got into photography more than a dozen years ago. And not long after that I really got into writing about photography and that entailed even closer looking than just taking photographs because now I have to interpret other people’s photographs.
SP: It sounds like you’re saying the more you look, the more you realize what you don’t see.
TC: Absolutely. You realize that in everything you’re looking at, you’re missing something and it becomes a haunting question. The other thing that happened was that sometime around 2011, just after my first book, Open City, was published in this country, I had an episode with my eyes. I woke up one morning and was blind in my left eye. I wasn’t in pain. I just couldn’t see and it was like a veil had fallen over my vision, and my right eye wasn’t doing so great either. So of course this is a nightmare for anyone.
SP: Especially for you, since you’re a photography critic.
TC: An art historian and a photography guy. This occlusion went away over the course of a couple of days. But doctors could not quite figure out what was going on. Eventually I got a diagnosis from this top specialist on retinal problems. He said I had something called Big Blind Spot Syndrome. It’s something I kept thinking about afterwards. Later, I had some surgery. The problem has come back again but only rarely. But I kept thinking about the blind spot. And it changed my photography
SP: How so?
TC: I was already looking intently, but I started to look more intently, more patiently. My photography got a bit more meditative and mysterious. I began to pay attention to the ordinary in a more focused way.
SP: What’s striking when I look at your own photographs – of back alleys, side streets, a tarp hanging over a shack – these aren’t the usual tourist photos we see.
TC: That’s right. Having eye trouble made the ordinary glorious. It’s just the way the sun falls across concrete or, like you said, a hanging tarp. It’s almost like William Carlos Williams’s poetry. I’m not the first person in photography to pay attention to such simple scenes, usually devoid of people and excitement. Certainly in American photography we’ve had pioneers like Lee Friedlander or Stephen Shore or William Eggleston, but the discovery for me was finding out the highly personal way I wanted to do this. Simply to make images out of the ordinary and then to draw the extraordinary narrative that might be lying behind that terrain or city if it was a place I was visiting.
SP: Does your approach to photography match how you look at the world? Is seeing the same thing as taking a picture of it?
TC: It’s getting closer. This aspect of my work — writing for the public and making images — has been going on for about a dozen years, and in that time I’ve understood more and more that all of it is of a piece. I used to think they were really separate. Now I realize that looking at the world, making images, writing about images, writing about things that are not images, all of it is an attempt to testify to having been here and seen certain things, having looked at the world with a kind eye but an eye that is not ignoring questions of justice and history. And that’s why Blind Spot is a book of text and images.
SP: Nearly every page of this book has one image and an accompanying bit of text that you’ve written, often just one paragraph. Sometimes you reference the picture you’ve taken, sometimes you don’t. What’s the connection between text and image?
TC: I wanted to make a book that was a little bit novelistic but with none of the things you expect from a novel. This book is not made up. These are stories drawn from real life — personal experience, philosophy, essayistic-type of speculations. Novels usually don’t have 150 color photographs. And yet I wanted to give it the energy of a novel or a documentary film, just a very peculiar one. So in one sense it was about the excitement of working in a new genre — a genre I was developing myself — the rhythm of text and image. But if you look at just the images all by themselves, they have a common visual language. They’re in color. I shot everything in film in 25 different countries. They usually have streetscapes or interiors, not a lot of people. When we have people, they’re turned away from us, so there’s a quietness that connects all the images. And if you read all the text in sequence, they have a kind of philosophical temperature that unites them. So this adventure was finding my way into a new form that I hope has a coherence. So if somebody goes through the book, they feel they’ve been through something strange and marvelous. It’s a strange album, a strange movie, a strange novel, but it’s none of those things because it’s actually just texts and images.
SP: What can text do and what can an image do?
TC: Text is very good at being explicit. When you write, you’re saying something in particular about the world. Images are specific about what was seen but not about what it means. When you put them together, you have the opportunity either to explain, which is usually not what I’m doing, or to create a kind of poetry. So you put the semantics of text together with the description of the image and they meet at an interesting angle. And out of that angle, I’m hoping and praying that some kind of poetry happens.
SP: And there’s a third thing you do. Often you’re not just describing the picture. You refer to favorite books and writers and artists. There are layers upon layers. Nothing is ever direct with you.
TC: [Laughs] Not really. Well, it’s all part of my world. This library contains The Iliad and The Odyssey. It also contains the Bible. I’m very interested in Christian theology. I think this is my most personal book to date and Christian teaching was a big part of my formation. And the moment I start thinking about how much I am seeing, how much I am missing, all this Christianity just comes in — not as an explanation but as a lens to understand it. Stories like Jesus healing the blind, and religious faith as a kind of seeing, as a form of prophecy. Religious faith is something I drifted away from because I realized that some of the claims it made about special vision did not hold true. Having believed was a kind of blind spot.
SP: Is your project to remove the blind spots, or to acknowledge that we all have blind spots?
TC: It’s really about acknowledgement. To go back to these very old texts was also a way to acknowledge the antiquity of these questions. There’s something elemental about a person walking down a street, so I talk a lot about walking in the book because walking is connected to photography but photography is connected to seeing. The kind of seeing we do has to do with us being upright creatures whose eyes are flat on our faces. We’re not like dogs close to the earth, with eyes on either side of the snout. So these are very old questions. At some point we were on all fours and then we stood up. Of course the book is haunted by frailty, eventually also by death. I wanted this book to be very contemporary but also to deal with what it means to be a human creature upon the earth. Somehow thinking about theology and Homer gave me access to that.
SP: You’ve taken these photos all over the world. I started jotting down some of these places: Lagos, where you grew up, Nuremberg, Tivoli, Nairobi, Auckland, Tripoli, Milan, Berlin, Zurich, Copenhagen, Seoul, Bombay, Sao Paolo, Brooklyn, Beirut, Bali. The list goes on and on. You must like to travel.
TC: I get to travel a lot. I take a lot of pleasure from it and I get a lot of productive discomfort from it. I only included photos I felt were relevant to the project of the book. I only included places where I made film photographs because I wanted a consistency of effect and appearance. Not because film is better than digital. For example, on this visit to Madison, I’ve only brought my small digital camera.
SP: So I have this image of you. You land in a new place and just start walking with your camera, not necessarily to any particular destination. Is this what you do?
TC: That’s pretty accurate. You know, what’s missing from this book is I don’t have any pictures of Iceland because when I went there, I didn’t take a film camera. I took a digital one. I have no pictures from South Africa. I have no pictures from Australia.
SP: What does film give you that you don’t get in a digital picture?
TC: I think it affords a certain kind of slowness in the thinking. I have only 36 shots on this roll. Do I really want to take this picture?
SP: You have to be more selective.
TC: Yes. But having shot with film for many years now, I think that has also started to affect my digital shooting. I’m not so happy-go-lucky anymore.
SP: I know people who deliberately do not take cameras when they travel because they worry they’re always going to be looking for the good shot rather than just having the experience. Does that resonate at all with you?
TC: I understand where that thinking comes from. One of the most wonderful writers on photography was the English writer John Berger, who died earlier this year. He was somebody whose work I very much cherished. And I got the opportunity to ask Berger about why he didn’t take photographs and he said he tried it very briefly — maybe in the 80s. He had a photographer teach him how to take and develop photos and then he realized that when he took photos of a scene, it kind of foreclosed the writing he wanted to do about that situation. His attention to detail went to the image rather than to the writing he was able to do about it. So he preferred to observe and draw and write. But I find that I’m able to do both.
SP: Do you carry around a notebook as well as a camera?
TC: I always have a notebook, a pen and a camera. These are my tools because the world is always giving you various phenomena. You’ve noticed that some of what I’m writing about is different from what I photographed. Sometimes they coincide. I don’t want my photography to be an illustration of the text. I want the photograph to hold its own. What is the light doing? How are the colors working? How do things balance? The narrative also has to meet the demands of storytelling, of obliqueness, of compression. It has to detonate in a certain way that might actually be adjacent to the photograph, not sitting right on top of it. Which is why I don’t really call these texts “captions.” They are voice-overs. They are running parallel. Each has to emanate its own energy.
SP: You’ve talked about these elusive and mysterious photos that you like to take. Is that also what you like to see in other people’s photography?
TC: I like a very wide range of things in photography. This is important for me as a photography critic not to be closed-minded. So I like photos of the kind that is related to my work. I particularly like Italian contemporary photography. But I also like spectacular street photographers who can nail a decisive moment. I sometimes do that but not a whole lot of it. I also like a good portrait.
SP: Even though you rarely take portraits.
TC: I love strong portraits. I think it’s a challenging art form. Irving Penn was a great portraitist but I would rather look at a portrait by Gordon Parks. It seemed to have more import. And I think Richard Avedon, whose style is not so far from Irving Penn’s, was a more successful portraitist. But Henri Cartier-Bresson was an even better portraitist. There was something about what was happening around his portrait that gave it more energy. The young contemporary photographer Christopher Anderson is an extraordinary portraitist and he gets a lot of magazine work because of this extraordinary ability to work with color and appearance when making images of people. I like conceptual photography. And at the same time I like photojournalists and spot news reporting. So I like all sorts. But this applies to writing as well.
SP: You also seem to be fascinated by memory.
TC: Memory is often a layer. A lot of my language can probably be located somewhere around 1915, between Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. I have a lot of faith in what can be achieved with a well-polished English sentence. Not that I try to make the language old- fashioned, but I like a clean sentence. But a lot of the reading I do is fragmented. One of my favorite authors is Michael Ondaatje and he uses sentence fragments a great deal.
SP: Why do you like fragmentary sentences?
TC: Because they can evoke the present in a very powerful way.
SP: So you don’t want a narrative that’s too self-contained and wraps everything up?
TC: But sometimes I do. Look at James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” Excellent sentences and they’re somewhat formal, even though the narrative is not formal. You get your epiphany at the end and you have these very powerful feelings. But if you read Running in the Family or The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, it’s jazzier. Those sentences are all over the place. Or if you read Anne Carson, who is a modern master of the fragment. A fragment is very often about mastery as well. It’s about saying I need just this much to convey. That can just be a delight. For me it’s about recognizing that great art comes in all kinds of forms. In Blind Spot I actually use more fragments than I’ve tended to use you, though I also still use a lot of well-polished sentences.
SP: There’s one page in Blind Spot that I want to quote because it raises some interesting questions. It’s about Lugano. You have a photo of a park bench, a statue of a horse and some buildings. And here’s the entire text that accompanies that image:
She said to me: Europe is getting worse. I still don’t understand why you want to move to Switzerland. I said to her: I don’t want to move to Switzerland. Quite the contrary. I like to visit Switzerland. When I’m not there, I long for it, but what I long for is the feeling of being an outsider there and, soon after, the feeling of leaving again so I can continue to long for it.
There’s so much in that passage: your love of travel, your feeling of displacement, wanting to be an outsider but probably also experiencing the cost of being the outsider.
TC: Yeah, but some very profound pleasures in it. Why is that text in Blind Spot? Because it encapsulates a misunderstanding. “Oh, you talk about Switzerland. You must want to live there. You want to be a Swiss citizen.” No. So I’m thinking through that response. What is another possible reason for wanting to be in Switzerland? Well, one way is to enjoy visiting without the desire to live there. It also fits in this book because Switzerland is one of the hidden themes of the book. And I keep going back there.
SP: It made me think of an essay you wrote about James Baldwin in Known and Strange Things. He lived in a tiny mountain village in Switzerland in the 1950s, basically in exile. He was the only black person in that village, and that’s where he went to finish writing Go Tell It On the Mountain. Maybe he had to go there to be able to finish this book about America.
TC: Precisely. There’s a way that outsiderness either in your own person or in your location can help you understand what you’re an insider to. Being a Nigerian-American in America helps me to understand Nigeria in a more intense way.
SP: Is it easier to write about Nigeria when you’re in the U.S.?
TC: No writing is easy, but it affords me a certain insight while looking at it from a distance. Being in Nigeria, having grown up in Nigeria, also illuminates my understanding of America even though I’m an American. That outsiderness helps. But the peculiar thing about having a couple of Switzerland essays in Known and Strange Things is that it’s a perfect illustration of the way that each of my books hands on the baton to the next book. So Known and Strange Things becomes a kind of prequel to Blind Spot. The final essay in Known and Strange Things is called “Blind Spot.”
SP: Which is about the experience of losing your vision.
TC: Yes. And then in a weird kind of way this blooms out into an entire book of photographs. But Known and Strange Things takes up in essayistic form many of the concerns that have been raised in novelistic form in Open City. What does it mean to live together? What are the responsibilities of looking at art? What should migration look like? Meanwhile, Open City itself is a kind of expansion on the out-of-placeness of the narrator who was at the center of Every Day Is for the Thief, which is the first book I wrote. So I dream of this organic flow of books.
SP: Even though the format of each of these books is really quite different. Some are fiction. Some are nonfiction. One has a lot of photographs. You seem to enjoy playing with form.
TC: Not only are they four books in four different genres, but each one is also considered peculiar within the genre that it’s supposed to be. Open City is strange for a novel. It’s a novel without a plot. And 400 pages of an essay collection that’s curiously personal and still you don’t know too much about me [laughs].
SP: There’s one other form that you’ve mastered. You turned Twittter into an art form and developed a huge following.
TC: Thank you. It was a creative space for me and I enjoyed it very much.
SP: You wrote a series of tweets that got a lot of traction called the White Savior Industrial Complex. This was in response to the Kony 2012 video that was all the rage a few years ago, about the African warlord who had an army of child soldiers.
TC: So many things were coming together publicly and I wondered, what’s my response to this? It allowed me to think about what we do when we do charity. What do we owe to the people to whom we’re doing some kind of mercy or favor? How much of it is tangled up in our own ego for wanting to be the savior? How much of this is actually racialized? If white Americans are going to Africa to go save, how is this related to the history of colonialism? How is this related to racial politics here in the U.S.? How is this related to being a white person and how you view black people? Does equality have any role to play if we’re helping people who are desperate, or does desperation absolve us of the need to treat people like equals? I thought these were good questions to ask. Yes, the title was provocative. The White Savior Industrial Complex got people’s hackles up a little bit.
SP: Because you were calling out people, including New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who writes a lot about this kind of thing.
TC: Right. I was calling people out. But the interesting thing about justice is that unless somebody pushes, nothing really happens. If black people don’t push and speak out, nothing changes in race relations. If women don’t speak out and make a fuss and make things a bit uncomfortable, gender relations don’t really move. As we say, it’s the person who wears a shoe that knows where it pinches. And so the person whose shoe is pinching has to make the complaint. So there’s a space for complaint. And Twitter was an interesting place to put those ideas out there.
SP: Are you still on Twitter?
TC: I’m not on Twitter. I’ve not tweeted in about three years.
SP: Why did you let it go?
TC: That’s exactly what I do with each of these genres. I try to find out what I can do in that space. I try to do good work there, and then without any compunction or regret I move on. And I try to find the next place to continue my exploration.
SP: What was it about the Twitter moment that appealed to you?
TC: An instantaneous public. The conveyance of compression and sentences into the minds of others. How much can we fit into this form? I think what any artist has to offer is really freedom. Freedom can be contagious. I chafe at excessive convention but I love to work within conventions and then try to push them and stop somewhere before the breaking point. So perfectly good English sentences but then I’m pushing against what is permissible. So with this new book, what does the photography book look like? Well, not like this, which has a lot of text. So is it a selection of essays? Is it a memoir?
SP: Your personal history has clearly shaped your writing. You were born in Michigan, but within a few months your family moved to Lagos, where you grew up. How long were you in Nigeria?
TC: For 17 years.
SP: Why did you come back to America?
TC: I came back to the Midwest, to Kalamazoo, for university. My father was deeply unimpressed with the state of Nigerian universities in the early 90s and he wanted me to go back to the U.S. I didn’t mind that, but I certainly did not arrive in the U.S. as a desperate and eager immigrant. We had very little money, but the privilege of choice was there. I got some scholarships and loans and then I had to start learning what it meant to be here as an American who was Nigerian. It was almost as if for the first time I was also learning that I was black. That did not need to be stated in Nigeria because everybody else around me was black, but I had to learn the racial politics of the U.S. and then I had to start experiencing in my own body the variegations of racial prejudice.
SP: So at first, you did not have the experience of most African-Americans?
TC: I did not. But I’ve been in the U.S. for 25 years. I’m a black guy in America, so within those first couple of years, there are many things I did not have a narrative for. What does it mean if I’m strolling around in a small town in Michigan and a car slows down, the window is wound down and someone shouts the N-word at me? And what does it mean in a university setting where somebody says to me, “Oh, you’re not like those other blacks”? All of this stuff had to be understood as a black person in America. In fact, I’m an American African but I’m also an African American.
SP: Wasn’t it years before you actually went back to visit Lagos?
TC: Yeah. It’s a little bit different from the narrator of Every Day Is for the Thief but there are some similarities. I went back to Nigeria after three years, but then I didn’t go back again for another dozen years. There was a big mental distance. I kept not having the money. I kept not having the time. I kept worrying about whether I would be able to go. I went back in 2005 and I’ve been back every year since then. It became a priority and I reestablished roots there.
SP: But you live in Brooklyn now.
TC: I live in Brooklyn. I live in the U.S.
SP: Do you consider Brooklyn home?
TC: Yes. That’s where my wife is. My brother lives there. My friends are there. My books are there. My office is there. So that’s home. I also consider Lagos home. My parents live there. It’s where I grew up. If I go to Nigeria, my room is there. The two most spoken languages in Lagos — Yoruba and English — are languages I’m fluent in. So there’s an at-homeness, but a home is also wherever there’s good wi-fi. That connects me to the world in a way that is irreducible and essential to my experience of the world.
SP: Do you consider yourself more Nigerian or more American?
TC: Neither. Split right down the middle. Or rather 100 percent of both. I feel very invested in Nigeria’s future. There’s a book I’ve been working on for a long time about Lagos, so I think a lot about Nigeria. I’m American and America is in crisis at the moment and I feel invested. Open City was definitely an approach to this question but I feel invested in what this country ought to be. I’m a citizen who is not a patriot. I’m a citizen in the sense of being invested in what we owe each other. What do we do to protect each other’s rights? What do we do about people who break our mutual agreement? What do sanctions and punishments look like? Those philosophical questions are very interesting to me. Our borders are interesting to me. If my money’s being used to kill foreigners in the theater of war, that’s my business. So I’m very American and I’m also very Nigerian.
SP: The two cities where you’ve spent the most time are Lagos and New York. Are they totally different experiences for you or do they have certain similarities?
TC: The commonalities are extensive. It is the experience of cosmopolitanism, which is maybe the fourth definition of home for me. And this is what I find in spaces in Lagos. And it’s what I find in New York — restaurants, clubs, bookshops, shopping malls, traffic, crazy people on the street, high fashion. Cities as a kind of problem-solving technology. If there are 16 million people in the same place, then we have to use resources in a way that makes sense in such a compressed space.
SP: What are the biggest differences between Lagos and New York?
TC: New York is much richer. Lagos might have 25 buildings of monumental scale and New York has 300. The sheer physical scale of New York never ceases to surprise me. And then there’s that thing of New York being a world capital. Lagos is the capital of Africa.
Don’t let people in Cairo or Johannesburg tell you different. Lagos is the place where the pop culture of Africa is being made. Lagos is the capital of Africa but New York is the capital of the world. So there is something about encountering this expansive, complex mutual togetherness in conversation. It’s possible in New York. So New York is almost not an American city. It’s a city that’s a vision of what the world looks like if these borders are not as they are right now.
This interview was conducted through the radio program To the Best of Our Knowledge. An edited radio version will air soon.
I recently had the privilege of participating in a panel at the Center for Fiction. The topic was “Modern Family,” and the moderator posed the question: “What literature influenced you as a young person?” My fellow panelists—the amazing Alden Jones, Min Jin Lee, and Tanwi Nandini Islam—named beloved, important books and authors. My answer—which I think came as a surprise to most—was that I hardly read as a child and youth.
My parents are immigrants—English is not their first language—and neither are they readers or cultural mavens. We did not have many books in the house, and I was not read to as a child. I do recall a Disney picture book involving a scroogey Donald Duck character that I liked to read over and over—something about soup made from a button. Once I started school, there were of course books assigned, and I read them obediently if not enthusiastically. Mine was a somewhat typical suburban childhood: I watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Doritos.
The first book I read out of inner compulsion, as opposed to externally-imposed obligation, was Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This was my junior year of college—relatively late for someone who now writes and reads “professionally.” Reading Dillard was (and continues to be, in fact) a truly ecstatic experience—I must have reread every single page as I went along, pausing to stare into space or jot things down in my journal or just shake my head in awe—and it took me quite a long time to finish even as I couldn’t put it down (by the end, incidentally, I had decided I had to be a writer; or die trying). Where had this kind of reading been all my life? I realized for the first time that there is reading, and there is reading. The kind of reading that counts, that really matters, is what I’d call whole-soul reading. In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes about “mystical susceptibility,” the experience of books and language as “irrational doorways… through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, [steals] into our hearts and [thrills] them.” I’m so grateful to have had that intense conversion moment—because I have brought that expectation and susceptibility with me to every book I’ve picked up since then.
It’s true that I have often felt at a disadvantage for embarking on my reading life so late. I wrote about this a few years ago—the project of frantically “catching up” with my peers once I set myself on the path of literary life. But mostly that underdog status has been a positive motivation. I am an omnivorous reader and have not lost that addiction to mystical thrill—in James’s words, “states of insight and depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect… illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain”—when reading.
In 2016, thanks to a semester sabbatical, I read more than usual. Canonical books I read for the first time—”catchup” reading I’ll call it still—captivated me utterly and reminded me that, truly, there is never a “too late” (in fact, there may be a “too early”) when it comes to the reading life.
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler said it best: “Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley … He wrote for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there…He had style, but his audiences didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinement.” I was struck especially by the female characters Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Effie Perine: just when you thought you were going to have to excuse this old-fashioned author’s concessions to gender stereotypes, both the characters and the plot (by which I mean Hammett, of course) would subvert that concern. Incidentally, I also read The Big Sleep but didn’t take to it as much as Hammett. I’ve just started reading The Glass Key (on Chandler’s recommendation) and may be starting on a Hammett binge.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Of course this is a book I felt like I’d read because I know so much about it. At some point I may have half-watched on an airplane the film that stars Winona Ryder. I was sure I’d identify with Jo—if you’re reading the book at all, you’re Jo!— but was surprised (and not a little dismayed) to see a lot of myself in Amy. It was also interesting to recognize that the novel is as much about money as it is about being female—a reminder of the inextricability of economics and gender.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence. You know, it’s all relative I suppose, but given our enlightened times, wherein heterosexual relationships are more holistic and less physically driven, I found the sex here—four score and a decade later—still pretty racy. Perhaps our advantage as modern readers is that none of it is shocking, and so the novel’s themes—social class, integrity, the relationship between love and lust, human wholeness—have room to come forward.
King Lear, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare. I wasn’t actually sure if I’d read King Lear previously; again, I knew the story so well, in an ambient, abstract way. But once I started actually engaging the language, I knew that even if I’d “read” it, I definitely hadn’t read it. Here I offer another mode of reading, which is via audio: because Shakespeare is intended to be performed, an audio reading experience, sans visuals, is actually a spectacular way to immerse in Shakespeare’s dramatic and linguistic brilliance. Yes, I would sometimes need to rewind and relisten to confirm who was speaking, but all the better. I continued on with audio readings of Othello and The Winter’s Tale (irrational male jealousy is a theme I hadn’t ever before associated with Shakespeare, hmmm) and am ready, I think, for the historical-political plays—Henry IV is currently on deck.
Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. At a different time in my life, I might have read the former as a categorical rejection/denouncement of Christianity. But I was struck by Baldwin’s stunning feats of compassion—for Gabriel, the character based on his strictly religious, and hypocritical, father, especially: “Then, he began to cry, not making a sound, sitting at the table, and with his whole body shaking…finally he put his head on the table, overturning the coffee cup, and wept aloud. Then it seemed that there was weeping everywhere, waters of anguish riding the world—” (Also, we do well not to divorce Baldwin from religion, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to our best spiritual writers.) Giovanni’s Room as a kind of personal and artistic experiment—Baldwin writing about love, sex, desire, identity, money, integrity, and family without writing explicitly about blackness—inspires me and, especially in this moment of controversy over cross-racial writing, stirs so many questions. I’m still asking them.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Another oldie that struck me as relevant and very now. Women still struggle to be “selfish,” which is to say centered around one’s creative and sensual imperatives. Chopin’s/Edna’s attraction to heterogeneous culture—cultures of color, of mixedness, of social fluidity and possibility—is arguably a little icky, yet not so removed from what we today call “gentrification”: affluent whites from homogeneous backgrounds wanting to increase their quality of life by stirring up their privilege with urban history, cultures that emerge from struggle, intersectional experience (I live in West Harlem, can you tell?). Chopin’s descriptions of Edna’s nascent self-centering resonated with me over and again: “There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested…Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”
Chopin provides a definition of mystical experience—those moments when the inward life questions—that James himself may have appreciated. The Awakening is an adult coming-of-age story in its pursuit of integration—collapsing the outward and inward existences. I love the notion of every book we read—whole-soul read—being a part of this process: a quiet, private evolution, toward a more complete self, and in a world we must all work to make more hospitable to such evolution than was Edna Pontellier’s.
Image credit: Alexandre Duret-Lutz.
I am in the habit of slipping objects between the pages of whatever book I am reading: sometimes to mark a place, more often because a book is the safest place I know for letters or receipts or tickets or whatever I need to bring with me somewhere.
I have carried books for over two decades of adult life now, years spent largely in Illinois and New York, but also on vacations and trips that go much farther afield. Earlier this month, I went through every book in our Manhattan apartment to see what I could discover. This meant flipping pages in roughly 700 books, mostly novels, but also poetry books, memoirs, and essays, searching for pieces of my own history.
The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy
A slim copy request slip from Columbia’s writing program, circa 1999. I was workshopping my first novel and adjusting to life in New York City. McCarthy’s rustic prose was like a postcard from the woodsy plain in Michigan where I grew up. On the flip side of the slip, a handwritten list of obscure words in the text I admired — slewed, purl, wale, rictus — words that, alas, I then tried to jam into my own doomed manuscript.
The Blue Estuaries by Louise Bogan
Torn strips of paper mark dozens of poems that I liked as an undergraduate at Northwestern, back when I wanted to be a penniless poet when I grew up. I remember announcing this career path to my parents one chilly bright autumn afternoon while we milled outside Ryan Field before a football game. They took the news remarkably well. Today, I remember nothing of what drew the 20-year-old me to poems like “The Frightened Man” or “Betrothed.”
John Adams by David McCullough
A full sheet (minus one) of Forever Stamps from the U.S. Post Office. The picture on the stamps: the Liberty Bell, of course
Stamboul Train by Graham Greene:
Two colorful ticket stubs, mementoes from an official starting point of my own: Flight 438 from Lisbon to Paris on May 30, 2004, Seats 23E and 23F, one for me and one for my wife, Raina, on the flight back home from our honeymoon.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The business card of a Vice President of Strategy for Razorfish, a major Internet consultancy in the ‘00s — and perhaps the strangest bedfellow possible for a book about Stalinist oppression. But these were my late-20s, a time of routine contradictions, when I fancied myself a professional Web geek by day but a self-serious failed novelist at the night.
Christine Falls by John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black)
The inspection certificate for our brand new Toyota RAV-4 from May 6, 2009. Despite having sworn never to have a car in the city again, Raina and I leased the Toyota because our daughter was two and we wanted to improve our ability to flee for the suburbs and the helpful hands of her parents whenever our nascent parenting skills failed us.
A Multitude of Sins by Richard Ford
Devil’s Dream by Madison Smartt Bell
The floor plan for the apartment that Raina and I moved into in 2011, right before our son — our second child — was born. Our new neighborhood’s streets were littered with more trash than our previous, and car alarms would trumpet the start of the work day for livery drivers at 6 a.m., but the apartment felt big enough for all four of us, plus our dog, and in New York City having enough space means having everything.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
A yellow Post-It note that says “Waverly and Mercer” and “penne and chocolato,” written in my hand. I know I met many friends near the intersection of these two Village streets over the years — before we’d get pints of Belhaven at Swift or maybe cheap margaritas at Caliente Cab Company — but the meaning has gone just as those friends have left for Westport, Conn., or Chicago, Ill., or wherever friends go.
For 10 years, from 2003 through 2013, I commuted from New York to New Jersey each day — an hour each way. I used to tell people that I didn’t mind, because I had so much time to read books. And it’s true, I did a lot of reading then. But I did mind. I slipped three off-peak round trip passes for New Jersey Transit trains in the Beattie; 4 more receipts and three canceled tickets in the Baldwin; and, in the Sartre, six receipts, more than six round trips, perhaps a signal of how hard I worked to find joy in that joyless fusion of philosophy and fiction.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
City of Glass by Paul Auster; A Rage to Live by John O’Hara; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut; This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff; The 9/11 Commission Report; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson; Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima; and on and on.
During that long commuting decade, I often took not just the New Jersey Transit train but also a local tram in Newark. To ride the Downtown line, I had to buy a lavender ticket from a machine at the top of a long escalator. On the platforms at select stops, conductors would surprise commuters and demand proof that we each had used the ticket punch clocks to validate our 50-cent passes. I find these lavender alibis slipped in the pages of dozens and dozens of books.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Inside this hardcover I find the phone number for a taxi company and words written in Spanish: Buena Vista Villas en la picinade abajo. Also, a receipt for a $26 car ride. I know that Raina and I were in Costa Rica for my brother’s wedding in 2005. But I don’t speak or write Spanish. And I don’t know where the taxi brought us.
The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee
A full-color 3×2 photo strip. Two duplicates of a portrait still from my daughter’s kindergarten year, her tiny face smiling out, forever five years old. I brought this book with me when I went to a writer’s retreat for a week in 2013. I tried but failed to engage in the Coetzee, never finished it. Spent a lot of time looking at the little girl.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
A piece of notebook paper from 1999 with phrases from the text that I liked (“the smell of lavender,” “like a person who is listening to a sea-shell held to her ear”), and a toll-free telephone number. I dial the telephone digits now, curious, but a recording says the number is no longer in service.
The Triumph of Achilles by Louise Glück
There is, technically, nothing in this book. But it is hardly empty. I can still find the poem marked with a hard diagonal line at the page corner, as if the paper were folded over a knife. “Sooner or later you’ll begin to dream of me,” the poem promises. “I don’t envy you those dreams.” A haunting line called out by an ex-girlfriend who borrowed the book after we broke up. Two decades later, the curse has yet to come true.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
A Polaroid taken last year when it was my son’s turn to be in kindergarten: We are seated together in his classroom on a morning I don’t precisely remember — just as, I suppose, the father in The Buried Giant cannot quite recall his own son — although anyone can see this moment still matters by the bright and radiant looks on our faces. And will always matter, I like to think. Even if that’s not possible to prove.
After I finished this long walk through the books of the last 20 years, I asked myself whether I should leave the found objects or take them out. Should I strip the books clean for whoever comes through next — perhaps for my children when they are adults, if their taste in books resemble mine at all? Or shall I leave the objects more or less where I found them, a story-within-the-stories that tells the tale of one reader’s life for anyone who cares to sleuth out the details? This wasn’t a hard decision, as you’d guess. The objects go back. The page turns.
My year in reading was a strange one for me, like only one year previous in my life thus far: I had finished a novel — The Queen of the Night, due out in Feb. 2016 — and so the year was that peculiar kind of annus horribulis, in which you try to keep a lid on your ego and act casual, all while you wait for your novel to appear in stores with all that implies. You dutifully prepare your events, your website, and your life for a period of time that has no certain borders and that will have little relationship either to what you fear or what you desire. And everyone’s advice never changes: start on finding your next project, so you have at least a relationship to it and aren’t caught out by what eventually happens.
To get through this as a writer is a little like splitting into two: one of you heads off into the woods of your own self while the other becomes some public version of you, making its way like a renegade balloon from the Thanksgiving Day Parade that just keeps inflating.
My reading then was both a little like it always is — a mix of books I’m teaching and books I simply wanted to read — but several ideas for what my next book will be were already underway and auditioning for my attention — a mystery novel, a novel I’ve put off writing for nearly two decades, a space opera, and a collection of essays. In order to think about them and to also get my work done, I planned two new classes: one on autobio, as autobiographical fiction is increasingly called, and one on plot. And it is true that I do have a few more answers now than I started the year with, but I also had a lot of fun.
In the first half of the year, I read autobiographical fiction and some nonfiction work that ran along its edges: Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, for example, which I remember suffered by comparison to The Woman Warrior back when I first read it, but which seems to me now a bravura performance in its own right: her attempt to imagine her way into the silences inside the men in her family’s history. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin’s first novel, is still as relevant as ever and as immaculately made — line for line, the prose is a wonder. Colette’s puckish first novel, Claudine at School, was like finding a whole other writer after her later novels, which I already knew. Edmund White’s The Married Man paired beautifully with Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, two very different stories of the personal social cost of trying to hold on to and even love your obsessions (and not just be obsessed with them). And I reread Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark alongside Ben Lerner’s 10:04, and thought about how each portrays a way of transcending the first person while also staying firmly in it.
Once summer began, I dove into Charles D’Ambrosio’s fantastic collection of personal essays and criticism, Loitering, which I read alongside Jan Morris’s majestic metafiction, Hav — a plotless novel written as travel writing of the oldest best kind. It describes her trip to an entirely fictional country, and done with a thoroughness of detail that is so convincing, I am still stunned Hav doesn’t exist.
I then prepared for my plot class with some favorites. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was as chilling as ever, a way of thinking about the present — and describing it — by inventing a past instead of a future. I loved Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire the more for knowing at last what life is like now as a professor (I hadn’t read it since undergrad). Likewise Toni Morrison’s Sula, which I now think of as a way to describe America through the lives of two women and a single Ohio town. Reading Justin Torres’s We the Animals for structure meant finding the fretwork is actually a spine.
Throughout, I mixed in the new: Like many, I devoured Hanya Yanagihara’s astonishing A Little Life. And then I also read from the more than new, books you can read next year: Garth Greenwell’s breathtaking What Belongs to You, which is a little like if Marguerite Yourcenar returned to us with Bruce Benderson’s obsessions, and Chris Offutt’s new memoir of the secret estate his father left him (and the secrets in it), coming in March — My Father, the Pornographer.
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The first thing I thought of while trying to write this list was the pile of books I have not even started, that I feel guilty for not reading, or have not yet finished reading this year. I have problems with guilt. To stoke that fire, I’ll mention some books I reread (while I clearly should have been reading other books for the first time): I revisited Max Frisch’s masterpiece Montauk because while devouring Jenny Offill’s irreducible and totally beautiful Dept. of Speculation I noticed echoes between the two books. I was even compelled to write an essay about the experience. I “reread” Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood by listening to it on audio, and was amazed after I was finished to find all those voices, and accents, all that violence, and all those profoundly religious and genuinely creepy moments were delivered by Bronson Pinchot. What a reader! I had no idea. Truly a perfect stranger to me. I reread the first quarter or so of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and once again found myself nodding off, wishing he would please stop already with the lecturing on musical theory and just get on with the story. I reread James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain only to discover I have been subconsciously stealing moves from that book for years.
I loved David Gerrard’s debut Short Century, a twisted tale of moral relativism, political posturing, drone strikes, and incest. What more could you want? Will Chancellor’s A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall knocked my socks off. Amy Jo Burns’s Cinderland made me cry and want to listen to Nine Inch Nails — at the same time, which is exactly how you should listen to Nine Inch Nails. I read Chelsea Hodson’s Pity the Animal, twice. It is quite short but huge in scope and ambition. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
2014 Homeruns: Roberto Bolano’s A Little Lumpen Novelita is impossibly good like all of his best stuff and while it comes in last chronologically (we shall see…), it leaps to the near head of the line as one of his best books. I would read Javier Marías’s “to do” lists with pleasure (then again, all of his books sort of read like deeply ruminated “to do” lists), and so I found The Infatuations, all of its secrets and obsessions, its violence and cheating, all of its murder and sex, a superb addition to my shelves. Jason Porter’s Why Are You So Sad? was by far the funniest novel of the year (and one of the weirdest, and one of the saddest, and one of the most philosophical). And the only thing that could have made Marilynn Robinson’s Lila better were if she rocked me in her arms as she read it to me as if I were her child.
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