Open City: A Novel

Highlights from my reading of Open City: A Novel, by Teju Cole. Since I read this as a kindle book, I am noting the locations rather than page numbers.

But a book suggests conversation: one person is speaking to another, and audible sound is, or should be, natural to that exchange. (location 78)

The streets served as a welcome opposite to all that. Every decision—where to turn left, how long to remain lost in thought in front of an abandoned building, whether to watch the sun set over New Jersey, or to lope in the shadows on the East Side looking across to Queens—was inconsequential, and was for that reason a reminder of freedom. (location 102)

The sight of large masses of people hurrying down into underground chambers was perpetually strange to me, and I felt that all of the human race were rushing, pushed by a counterinstinctive death drive, into movable catacombs. Above-ground I was with thousands of others in their solitude, but in the subway, standing close to strangers, jostling them and being jostled by them for space and breathing room, all of us reenacting unacknowledged traumas, the solitude intensified. (location 105)

On an afternoon of heavy rain when ginkgo leaves were piled ankle-deep across the sidewalk looking like thousands of little yellow creatures freshly fallen from the sky, I went out walking. (location 481)

it was a picture that had nothing to do with my oma, and everything to do with my mother’s resentment of her. (location 495)

A laden brush, in depositing paint on the panel or canvas, hardly registers a sound, and how great is the peace palpable in those great artists of stillness: Vermeer, Chardin, Hammershøi. The silence was even more profound, I thought, as I stood alone in that gallery, when the private world of the artist was total in its quietness. (location 559)

From where I stood, the Statue of Liberty was a fluorescent green fleck against the sky, and beyond her sat Ellis Island, the focus of so many myths; but it had been built too late for those early Africans—who weren’t immigrants in any case—and it had been closed too soon to mean anything to the later Africans like Kenneth, or the cabdriver, or me. (location 792)

Here we all were, ignoring that water, paying as little attention as possible to the pair of black eternities between which our little light intervened. Our debt, though, to that light: what of it? We owe ourselves our lives. This, about which we physicians say so much to our patients, about which so little can reasonably be said, folds back and also asks us questions. (location 817)

But atrocity is nothing new, not to humans, not to animals. The difference is that in our time it is uniquely well-organized, carried out with pens, train carriages, ledgers, barbed wire, work camps, gas. And this late contribution, the absence of bodies. (location 852)

Generations rushed through the eye of the needle, and I, one of the still legible crowd, entered the subway. I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories. Somewhere close to the water, holding tight to what he knew of life, the boy had, with a sharp clack, again gone aloft. (location 864)

We were all boys, but some boys were men; they had natural authority, were athletic, or intelligent, or from rich families. No one thing was enough, but it became clear that we were not all equal. It was a strange new life. (location 1120)

The afternoon was time taken out of time. After it, silence enfolded us once more, an easier silence, which allowed us to each experience our particular grief. (location 1168)

WE EXPERIENCE LIFE AS A CONTINUITY, AND ONLY AFTER IT FALLS away, after it becomes the past, do we see its discontinuities. The past, if there is such a thing, is mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing, in which significant persons and events float. (location 2234)

There were sparrows flitting about in the distance, attempting to find a place to rest for the night, darting in and out of the network of coves formed by the bare trees and the interlocking arches of the university’s buildings. As I reflected on the fact that in each of these creatures was a tiny red heart, an engine that without fail provided the means for its exhilarating midair maneuvers, I was reminded of how often people took comfort, whether consciously or not, in the idea that God himself attended to these homeless travelers with something like personal care; that, contrary to the evidence of natural history, he protected each one of them from hunger and hazard and the elements. For many, the birds in flight were proof that we, too, were under heaven’s protection, that there is indeed a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. (location 2586)

In winter I retreat. In the long and sunny days following, in March, April, and May, I am much more likely to seek out the company of others, more likely to feel myself alert to sights and sounds, to colors, patterns, moving bodies, smells other than the ones in my office or at the apartment. The cold months make me feel dull, and spring feels like a gentle sharpening of the senses. (location 2762)

a wisteria’s boughs hung low, the petals on its purple blooms reticulated and busy with resurrection. There were some tulips, Sultans of Spring, I supposed, with large silken petals that were like ears. Bees collided again and again with the flowers, tracing flight paths all around us. (location 2823)