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Review: Books, Books and Larry McMurtry’s “Books”

by Jerome Weeks 17 Jul 2008 4:41 PM

For readers, author-screenwriter Larry McMurtry’s life as a bookseller-collector seems a sideline. For him, it’s been everything.


  • Listen to Krys Boyd’s interview with Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana for Think.
  • Read Robert Wilonsky’s take on the Nasher Salon evening with McMurtry and Ossana for the Dallas Observer.
      • Online review:

Reviewers have been relatively dismissive of Larry McMurtry’s new memoir, Books. I can understand why, but it seems I enjoyed the book more than most.

A bit more, anyway.

Books is actually a collection of bibliophillic recollections, some as brief as a few paragraphs, all of them tied, however loosely, to McMurtry’s own life or to the books that have passed directly through his hands or through his store, Booked Up. Founded in Washington, D.C in 1971, Booked Up currently takes up five storefronts in

Archer City, his tiny hometown northwest of Fort Worth.

The antiquarian book trade, which McMurtry has followed almost as long as he’s been a screenwriter, has actually produced a fair amount of volumes about itself. And they’re not all just reference works. Currently, there’s a series of antiquarian murder mysteries; hardly the first ones, as McMurtry points out.

But as the author also declares, when it comes to bookshop-based books, probably only 84, Charing Cross Road has ever appealed to a wide audience.

In this, McMurtry neglects The Bookseller of Kabul, an international bestseller. Still, his larger point remains: The second-hand bookshop has hardly fired up the public’s imagination as a literary setting. It’s a double cause for concern here. In Books, McMurtry repeatedly mulls over his immediate problem: How can his own wistful biblio-homage, the book that the reader is holding, interest anyone not already a confirmed collector? But more worrisomely, will anyone care about a dwindling profession? Will bookselling even survive? Our web-enabled world seems intent on dispensing with, if not reading and writing outright, then certainly the publishing industry, right down to the lowly book scout.

The printed word still has a lot more life in it, I believe, more than McMurtry’s typically melancholy outlook would lead us to believe and certainly more life than the trumpeted sales of Amazon’s e-reader, the clumsy-to-carry Kindle, might indicate. Yet it’s characteristic of Books‘ weakness that McMurtry neglects to answer either question.

Of course, at the moment, no one has a definitive answer about the (near) future of printed books. But as for the issue of reader interest, it’s not any inherent dullness in the antiquarian trade that keeps Books a minor work: It’s McMurtry’s avoidance of anything too deep, too engaging, too emotionally connected.

There’s quite a few eccentric characters here (including Janet Auchincloss, Jackie Onassis’ well-monied mother, who couldn’t accept that someone she knew socially was “in trade” as a bookseller). There are plenty of book trails, as well, trails to follow as a single precious volume (or even an entire library) gets traded and lost and found again. And we mustn’t forget that Books is also a memoir: It picks its way along McMurtry’s own developing bookishness.

Growing up in a “bookless part of a bookless state,” and growing up completely unsuited to his family’s ranching business, McMurtry was fortunate, while still a child, to have a love of reading sparked by the offhand gift of 19 volumes. Today, he admits, book collecting has eclipsed even writing as a treasured activity. He has his own 28,000-volume library, of which he’s fairly proud, and then there’s Booked Up’s 325,000-plus sale items. Many days, if you visit, you can find him in the sorting room, still going through the incoming books by hand.

Essay writing: It’s not a talent he normally touts, and the vast majority of Lonesome Dove readers probably don’t know it, but McMurtry is a superb essayist. Witness his terrific non-fiction collections: In a Narrow Grave, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen and Sacagawea’s Nickname. Indeed, Walter Benjamin is the finest book he’s produced in a decade, while much of Books is like a series of elaborating footnotes to Walter Benjamin.

In this light, Books‘ format of short, linked non-fictions should not have presented any obstacle to him. In fact, my enjoyment of McMurtry as an essayist — with his smart, honest, unpretentious and drily funny voice — probably led me to enjoy Books longer than my fellow reviewers. I have followed that voice into areas of which I know little (the entire 13-volume set of the journals of Lewis and Clark). So this time I toddled along after McMurtry’s tales of dusty bookshops and collecting books by female travel writers — past the point, I suspect, at which most readers’ tolerance gave out.

But my interest gave out, eventually, too. I kept wishing for more, for something deeper and more reflective. We get a snapshot portrait, and then McMurtry’s sigh over the passing of these people and their collections. Then we’re on to the next.

Yet it’s precisely the elegy, the marking of loss, that has long been McMurtry’s great mode: All of those novels about the passing of the Old West, all of those novels about coming of age or dying off in the new West, all of those novels with titles of death and isolation and departure: Leaving Cheyenne, Dead Man’s Walk, Moving On, By Sorrow’s River, Lonesome Dove, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers.  That’s pretty much his entire career.

What’s more, McMurtry himself has often made the analogy between cowboys herding cattle and the writer’s task of herding words into paragraphs on a page — or, as here, the book collector’s need to cull his precious volumes, herding them together on shelves. He’s the biblio equivalent of a cutting horse. So rather than some eccentric distraction from McMurtry’s grand themes, chronicling the slow decline of a generation of venerable antiquarians is very much in his range.

So I have to wonder: Perhaps the subject of the dying bookshop is too close to him, too tender a spot in his heart to probe deeply. Texas, McMurtry has always been extremely ambivalent about, if not scornful of, especially the “mythic Lone Star Texas.” And ranching and farming he has positively hated (as he details here in his amusing childhood confrontations with frightening animals). Although he has written reams of popular material about both Texas and cattle ranching, he has often cast a cold eye on both — filling his Western world with murderous storms, casual slaughters, idiot innocents, criminal psychopaths, faithless fools, hopeless buffoons, tragic failures.

In contrast, reading books and collecting them were what saved McMurtry from such a life as a farmer, ranchhand or even a veterinarian. Writing is a profession for him; reading and collecting have been like life itself. They’re his passions. No wonder Books feels brief and sad, but more than sad, bereft. The death of the antiquarians and the decline of reading: It all must feel too much like being bookless and alone again out on the prairie.

Earlier this year, the LA Times published a report about a gala dinner at the Los Angeles Public Library.  McMurtry has always liked Los Angeles, and for a company town that is usually derided by novelists-turned-frustrated-screenwriters, Los Angeles has responded warmly to a Pulitzer Prize-winning (and, of course, Oscar-winning) author’s affection. Perhaps it’s because he’s even become a made-for-TV movie producer. In any event, McMurtry was there to receive an award from the Library Foundation.

But McMurtry’s acceptance speech that evening detailed the other reason he loved LA, a reason not widely encountered by a Hollywood-happy world: Once upon a time, there were 115 second-hand bookstores in the city. It was a shelf-filled wonderland to a young, bookish writer from Texas in 1963.

And now that wonderland is utterly gone. Dutton’s, an independent bookstore in LA, closed the very day of the awards dinner.

For his part, McMurtry doesn’t often appear in public. Fairly grumpy, the 72-year-old author is not comfortable “on display” — and it shows. But that evening, he recalled those wonderful old bookshops (he was still able to list 75 of them by name). It must have been a strange evening in Hollywood, watching an Oscar-winning movie producer weep in public over some dusty stores that no longer exist. As he read “Going, Going,” Philip Larkin’s elegiac poem about the loss of traditional England (“I thought it would last my time — The sense that, beyond the town/ There would always be fields and farms”), McMurtry could barely make it through. He had damp eyes and a faltering voice.