The Week in Books 2008, No. 35

Would you believe that a mediocre painter of insipid deer and creepy skeletons wearing tophats could create a painting of dreary, huge-eyelidded, greasy-haired people, call it “Christ at Emmaus,” pass it off as a VERMEER by getting world-renowned experts to actually believe it was a Vermeer (as if they had never seen a real Vermeer), and make millions of dollars selling it to so-called discriminating art collectors?

Believe it! It happened! The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century tells the fascinating story of how a Dutch painter got incredibly rich forging Vermeers and Franz Hals paintings that even your average man on the street would not believe today. The book explores the way we understand and conceive of art, what makes art of value or worthless, why forgery works again and again, why experts are usually right but surprisingly prone to be wrong, and the psychology at work during the 1930s and 1940s in the Netherlands and throughout Europe and America that made these particularly awful fakes believable at the time.

Although at times I felt like the author was needlessly repetitive (the book might have benefited from being about 75 pages shorter), I’d recommend this book as a fascinating and educational look at art, history, psychology, and many other topics of general interest.

At first I thought I would put How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form down without finishing it, because contrary to what you might expect from the title, the book could more aptly be described as “how to read novels like an AP English teacher” because the topics are much more a throw-back to high school English than to college level literature classes. Or maybe I just took really esoteric literature classes in college.

In any case, after a while I started reading this book from a different perspective entirely and I started noticing a lot of good tips about writing in general. Although the book doesn’t necessarily get into it, I started thinking about how an author’s choice of narrative voice tells a lot about his or her worldview, or how the fact that good writing is full of characters who are described less by details of appearance and more by what they really want can also help get at the larger themes a writer is evoking in a given book.

Further, after a section about how fiction can’t be written in a vacuum (that is, all writers are influenced to a large degree by what’s been written before, whether or not they admit it) I was prompted to think about how the type of reading you do plays a role in the type of writing you do or could do. For example, my brother and I might both write novels, but they would be very different – partially because we have had different life experiences of course, but probably in large part because we read different types of books.

I would give “How to Read Novels Like a Professor” a guarded recommendation – what you get out of it would depend on what you are looking for.

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