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Every evening at the parsonage ended the same way: with a book. Far from being a solitary, solipsistic exercise, reading aloud bound the family together and set them apart from the sea of rural Catholic illiteracy that surrounded them. Anna and Dorus read to each other and to their children; the older children read to the younger; and, later in life, the children read to their parents. Reading aloud was used to console the sick and distract the worried, as well as to educate and entertain. Whether in the shade of the garden awning or by the light of an oil lamp, reading was (and would always remain) the comforting voice of family unity. Long after the children had dispersed, they avidly exchanged books and reading recommendations as if no book was truly read until all had read it.

While the Bible was always considered “the best book,” the parsonage bookcases bowed with edifying classics: German Romantics like Schiller, Goethe, Uhland, and Heine; Shakespeare (in Dutch translation); and even a few French works by authors like Molière and Dumas. Excluded were books considered excessive or disturbing, like Goethe’s Faust, as well as more modern works by Balzac, Byron, Sand, and, later, Zola, which Anna dismissed as “products of great minds but impure souls.” The greatest Dutch book of the era, Max Havelaar (written by Eduard Dekker under the pseudonym Multatuli), was deplored for its blistering attack on the Dutch colonial presence in Indonesia and the “hypocritical goodness and self-glorification” of the Dutch middle class. More popular forms of children’s entertainments, especially the cowboy-and-Indian stories coming out of America, were deemed “too rousing” for a proper upbringing.

Like most literate families across Victorian Europe, the Van Goghs reserved a special place in their heart for sentimental stories. Everyone clamored for the latest book by Dickens, or by his fellow Englishman Edward Bulwer-Lytton (who first wrote “It was a dark and stormy night …”). The Dutch translation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin arrived in Zundert just about the time Vincent was born, only a year after the final installment appeared in America, and was received in the parsonage with the same fervid acclaim it met everywhere else.

Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life

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A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the delightful discovery that Van Gogh was actually an avid reader and book lover himself. I didn’t know then that he wasn’t the only one in the family who had loved reading. The excerpts today clearly shows where it all began.

The Van Gogh children entered the world of approved literature through two doors: poetry and fairy tales. Poetry, memorized and recited, was the preferred method for teaching children to be virtuous and devout and to listen to their parents. Fairy tales meant only one thing in the parsonage: Hans Christian Andersen. Stories like “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Princess and the Pea,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and “The Little Mermaid” had achieved worldwide acclaim by the time Anna started her family. Neither explicitly Christian nor bluntly didactic, Andersen’s tales captured the new, more whimsical view of childhood that Victorian leisure had fostered. The subtle seditiousness of stories that highlighted human frailties and often lacked happy endings escaped the parsonage censors.

Vincent’s reading would eventually range far beyond the books approved by his parents. But these early exposures set the trajectory. He read with demonic speed, consuming books at a breakneck pace that hardly let up until the day he died. He would start with one book by an author and then devour the entire oeuvre in a few weeks. He must have loved his early training in poetry, for he went on to commit volumes of it to memory, sprinkled it throughout his letters, and spent days transcribing it into neat, error-free albums. He kept his love of Hans Christian Andersen, too. Andersen’s vividly imagined world of anthropomorphic plants and personified abstractions, of exaggerated sentiment and epigrammatic imagery, left a clear watermark on Vincent’s imagination. Decades later, he called Andersen’s tales “glorious … so beautiful and real.”

Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life

Do you come from a reading family, too?

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2 thoughts on “Friday Feature: The Reading Family (1)

  1. My mom is a reader and read to me at bedtime when I was a child. Since she was a single, working mom, this time was special to me because I got her undivided attention. She also read in her every spare moment (once got a ticket because she was reading in stop-and-go traffic!) and I take after her (except I’ve never gotten a ticket for reading in traffic). My grandmother read a lot, as well. My dad, not so much.

    In my own family, my husband and I both read a lot, but our son doesn’t, despite being read to every night when he was little, receiving books as presents, etc. It makes me sad, but it’s just not his thing. (At least he CAN read!)

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