Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Big Book

When I was working downtown in the 90s, I used to browse the discount area on the 2nd floor of Borders and pick up interesting looking books at very low prices. One of these was Van Gogh: His Life and Art by David Sweetman, which I picked up for $4 at some point (the price tag is still on the cover). It can be years between when I buy a book and when I actually read it. After I finish a book, I write the date in front. I finished reading the Sweetman book in August 1999.

In his book, Sweetman recommends Vincent Van Gogh (Studio Book) by Marc Edo Tralbaut. Sweetman describes Tralbaut was the ultimate authority on Van Gogh, having come to study Van Gogh as a grad student not too long after Van Gogh died. Tralbaut was in the right place at the exact right time, while most the places were still there and most of the people Van Gogh knew and painted were still alive. Tralbaut became good friends with Van Gogh's namesake nephew, who ran the Van Gogh Musuem in Amsterdam.

Sweetman tells a story of Tralbaut running to a subject from one of Van Gogh's painting 50 years after the guy posed. Tralbaut ran into him on a Paris stairway and recognized him! Obviously Tralbaut must have been the Holy Grail of Van Gogh knowledge.

The Big Book
In 1969, Traubaut wrote the large book that recapped his life's work of studying Vincent Van Gogh. It is an impressive book. Big, heavy, finely illustrated, and pricey at $75 in 1969 dollars. That would be over $400 in today's dollars. (Inflation Calculator)

Buying the Big Book
Of course I was intrigued, but by 1999, the book was out of print. My friend Cynthy, who owns a rare book business, recommended I check out Before the Web, I would have been SOL trying to find this book. Using, without leaving home, I had dozens of copies to choose from, at a huge range of conditions and prices, from dozens of far-away independent book sellers. I picked a copy from a bookstore in Texas for about $30. $30 < $75 < $400.

A few days later, when I came home work, I found a large package in my door. I greatly appreciated the irony of using a modern day marvel, the Internet, to locate a marvel of older technology, a rare big book with the promise of much somewhat hidden knowledge.

Reading the Big Book
I treasured owning this book for many years, with the anticipation of eventually reading it and discovering its secrets. A couple of months ago, it was finally time to read the book I had such high expectations for. It started off a bit disappointing. Tralbaut was not a great writer. The early part is not only very dry, but is bogged down with pop-psychoanalysis, and some egotism on the part of the author. The middle bit is quite more interesting.

There are many old photos caught from the same vantage point as the paintings. Comparing them is quite interesting. There are also written and oral histories from people who knew Van Gogh, which are pretty neat. Tales from the Roulin family should be in the next pages, which I am looking forward to reading tomorrow and/or Saturday. Update: They weren't :-(

All of this was probably a lot more exciting back in 1969, before the wonder of the Web with its endless information laying out there, just there waiting for us to look at it from the comfort of home.

Final Analysis
While I am glad I read the book, it was pretty much a let down. I didn't feel I was peeling away lost knowledge from a big dusty book. It was much less detailed than I hoped. The pscyho-drivel lasted up unti the end of the book. Some of it seemed spot on, but some seemed like pure conjecture with the flimsiest of evidence. Maybe the back of a church is just the back of a church.

Now having read the book, I no longer treasure it as a prized possession. It is no longer the sacred tome. I think I"ll hold onto it a little while longer. I'm not ready to get rid of it, not yet anyway.

Todays' Googling
Trying to find a picture online of the book, I discovered that it seems they released it with at least two different dust jackets. This first picture is one that is replicated on the net in a few places. The second one, the bluish one, is the one I own. The first link is from a bookseller with a copy for sale.