Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
“Torment had never stayed his pen: Gould was an artist, a bohemian, suffering for his art, suffering for their art, suffering for all art.”
Somewhere around 1918, Joe Gould began recording every conversation he had with other people living in the United States. He wrote in hundreds of composition journals and filled the pages with quotations and paraphrases from his daily encounters and called it the “Oral History”. Gould insisted that publishers could not publish his work until after he died, as it was not meant for the current generation. In the late 1940’s, Gould was admitted to a hospital that virtually ceased his writing. After that, the journals stopped. After Gould passed away in 1957, the search for the “Oral History” began. Researchers tried contacting Gould’s friends, relatives, and people mentioned in his surviving letters. The story told in the surviving paperwork falls apart upon fact-checking some of the dates. If there is no trace of the hundreds of journals containing the “Oral History”, is it possible that it never existed at all?
Jill Lepore, thank you for writing the biography that got me out of my reading slump. I rarely read nonfiction, much less biographies, but I am so glad I picked up this book.
What I love about this book is the dual-plot structure between Joe Gould’s history and Lepore’s search for clues about the accuracy of the first plot. She tells Gould’s story as previous researchers have told it, but also voices her questions and rediscovers parts of his life herself. Although others have tackled the debate over the existence of the “Oral History”, Lepore certainly conducts her own research and draws her own conclusions. Interestingly, although Lepore outlines the facts she discovered, she allows the readers to form their own thoughts on the issue as well. Lepore says, “After reading everything about Gould I could possibly get my hands on, here are the facts and the story as I found it; do what you’d like with that”. In my opinion, that makes for the best kind of biography.
I also want to comment on the language of the book. The sentences are structured in a clear and succinct way. I have been deterred from biographies in the past because of the superfluous sentences that make the plot boring. I end up wondering why I’d want to read a biography about someone whose life was plainly uninteresting to me, and set the book down. Lepore has a way of keeping each sentence short enough to continue holding the reader, but concise enough to give the information needed. I wish every biography that I tried reading in the past could be rewritten into this sentence format because I am sure I’d pick them up again.
This was a really great read on a subject and person I knew nothing about beforehand. I’m glad I picked it up off of the NYT nonfiction best seller’s table at my town’s bookstore. It was an impulse buy, but a cherished one.