Books I liked

Van Gogh: The Life, by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

Read this if you want to appreciate art more, you like learning about a person’s psyche, and you’re in the mood for a long read (it’s 1000 pages or so).

My notes

  • Van Gogh had a tragic life and never found peace or happiness. He depended on his brother Theo for financial and emotional support and painted mostly in anonymity for years.
  • Success didn’t bring him happiness. In fact, when he was first reviewed in a Paris art journal and gained some notoriety, he almost immediately felt shame and like an imposter. He likened pride to a liquor, which intoxicates you and leaves you sick.
  • Not being self-sustaining ate at him, the dependency of asking Theo for money really pained him and contributed to the mental illness that killed him.
  • His financial dependence on his brother haunted their relationship, which is terrible because it was the most important relationship in both the brothers’ lives. Mixing business with family is dangerous.
  • I am interested in what made him an exceptional painter, one of the best artists of all time. Two things emerged to me that help explain that:
    • First, he produced a huge quantity of work. He worked very fast, and painted consistently for year and years. This seems like a prerequisite to greatness.
    • Second, because he was a social outcast, he saw the world differently than other people and had space to think for himself. He wanted to be included by other artists but lacked the necessary social grace. Ironically this allowed him to develop a unique style, something critics called “finding truth”. This reminds me of the idea of “thinking from first principles” which is championed by many tech founders. It is very difficult to do, especially when one faces of distractions and social pressures. Van Gogh’s isolation allowed him to discover truth for himself.
  • There are non-linear benefits from creating things consistently. Vincent’s big break came in an unpredictable way, and it would have been easy to think of him as an overnight success, but he had been toiling in obscurity for years and years. Consistent work sets you up for outcomes like this but you can’t measure it, you can’t really plan for it and so this sort of long-term, non-linear investment gets consistently undervalued.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami

Read this if you are in the mood for a melancholy novel that creates a new world with different rules than the one we know but that feels entirely natural. The writing style is conversational and matter-of-fact and it is a fast read. It will make you want to go to Japan.

My notes

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’s protagonist is Toru Okado, a 30 year-old man who is painfully aware that he is not getting to the essence of life. He is despondent and his relationship with his wife has grown stale.

Okado is unsatisfied with his job at a law firm and so he quits without knowing what he will do next. It seems that the job did not make him happy, but leaving does not make him happy either; he faces the difficult and common question, “what is it I truly need to be doing?”

Okado’s relationship with his wife started when they shared a strong connection but the drudgery of day-to-day coexistence has buried that connection. They are unable to truly “know” one another, and this idea of essence comes up again. Okado questions how he can ever know the essence of another person, especially when he does not really know the essence of himself.

Okado spends time in the bottom of a well to think about everything that happens in his life and becomes addicted to it. He needs solitude.

Sex is a complication in the novel and comes up in most of the relationships but is a secondary byproduct of relationships, it is certainly not the essence of the relationships or life itself.

There are several characters who have a supernatural ability to understand things and predict the future, it seems that some characters have the ability to tap into the essence of the world and understand it and use it.

People’s spirits can inhabit different bodies, the bodies of people are more vessels than core ingredients in what make up a person.

Okado is able to love his wife even after her infidelities. He does not ruminate on them and recognizes that they are not the core problem between them; instead the core problem is their inability to be truly open with one another.