Sunday, March 11, 2012


In recommending a book about an artist in the first place one is apt to lose a few readers. In the second place, by mentioning that the book has some 860+ good, readable pages one is apt to lose another big chunk. But for those few hardy souls who are left, reading this book will be one of the best decisions he or she could make.

The authors of the recently published “Van Gogh: The Life” indicate in the book that their intent was to reach general readers as well as specialists. I can’t speak for those specialists but as a general reader I will say that they, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, have spectacularly succeeded.

When I put the book on reserve at the library I was unaware of how long it was, and after my name came to the top of the list, I realized I was going to be hard pressed to finish the book in the two weeks our library allows for checkouts. And the library’s policy is “NO RENEWING” on new books! I determined that I would need to read three chapters a day to finish it and I’d have to put my regular life on hold to accomplish it.

I needn’t have worried. From page one I was totally engrossed in the telling of Van Gogh’s life and times. I could not put the book down! I stayed up later at night reading. I read while the morning news was on TV. I opted for reading instead of taking a little afternoon nap. And I admit to letting my husband do all the work at the Laundromat this last week so I could finish the book. Oh, such a feast.

I have read one other book by these authors, “The Mormon Murders,” and I knew that their writing was very, very readable. Telling stories that have a lot of technical stuff in them can sometimes be deadly boring, but Naifeh and Smith avoid that. They use some words that in a less well-written book I might have skipped over because I didn’t know what they meant, but in the telling of Van Gogh’s story I stopped at every word I was unfamiliar with and looked it up, so as not to miss a thing! (William Manchester is about the only other author I have ever done that with.)

Now here is an example of the kinds of experiences I had in the reading of this book. I came upon a paragraph where the authors are talking about a time sometime after Vincent’s ear-cutting episode where he wrote the following in a letter to his brother: “I have no need at all to go to the tropics….Personally I am too old and (especially if I have a papier mache ear put on) too jerry-built to go there.”

I stopped in my tracks at the word “jerry-built.” I knew what it meant, because I had an English teacher in the 10th grade who introduced that reference to the class. However, she said that it came out of World War I when the German army was in disarray and they were using boards and wires to hold their equipment together. She said that “Gerry” (that’s the spelling she used) was a term used for those in the German army and that Gerry-built or Gerry-rigged meant something barely held together. But when I read the above statement in the Van Gogh book, which was taken from one of Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, I saw that the term was in use at a time considerably earlier WWI like my teacher said. So then I had to go on the internet to find out why my understanding of the timing was so “off.” I learned it was my English teacher who was a bit off in her attribution, but this whole episode made me reflect how amazing it was that something I learned in 1951 could be resurrected and corrected in 2012 because of a book about a Dutch painter!

I had noticed early on that the book had no footnotes or endnotes and I wondered why. There are several appendixes at the end of the book, along with “A Note on Sources.” There the authors explain that the notes and their sources ballooned to roughly 5,000 typewritten pages, a length unmanageable in a single-volume biography. So they put them on line, free of cost to all researchers. That website is

As to the story itself, these authors know how to bring people to life. The book is not dry facts. It paints wonderful pictures with words. And beyond that, they have provided an abundance of Van Gogh’s spectacular paintings in full color on slick paper – even pictures that I had never seen before, and I’ve seen a lot of them.

I reluctantly returned “Van Gogh: The Life” to the library yesterday. I’m sorry to see it leave my home. I feel having that book in my hands for two weeks was a real gift, and I hope that it gets the readership it deserves. In the meantime, I have put the authors' previous book, on the artist Jackson Pollack, (which I had not known of) on my reserve list. I have no reason to think with the two books of Naifeh and Smith I’ve read being so good that the one on Pollack won’t be equally satisfying to me.


Dee said...

I love a good book...

Larraine said...

Too often bios get bogged down in very arcane or specialized areas. This sounds very interesting.

Heather said...

Hi I’m Heather! Please email me when you get a chance! I have a question about your blog. HeatherVonsj(at)gmail(dot)com