Books, books, books and "Books"
book/daddy can understand why reviewers have been relatively dismissive of Larry McMurtry's new memoir, Books. But I enjoyed it more than they did. A little, 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 entire publishing industry, right down to the lowly book scout.
There are plenty of eccentric characters here, for instance (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 to follow as a single precious volume (or even an entire personal 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 (from a cousin departing for service in World War II). Today, he admits, book collecting has eclipsed even writing as a treasured activity. He has his own 28,000-volume collection, 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.
It's not a talent he normally touts, and the vast majority of Lonesome Dove readers probably don't know it, but McMurtry has excelled as an essayist. Witness his superb non-fiction collections: In a Narrow Grave, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen and Sacagawea's Nickname. Indeed, Walter Benjamin remains his best book in the past decade; 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, book/daddy's 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. book/daddy has followed that voice into areas of which I know little (the entire 13-volume set of the journals of Lewis and Clark, for example), so this time, book/daddy toddled along after McMurtry's tales of the Bruce library, dusty bookshops and collecting female travel writers -- past the point, I suspect, at which most readers' tolerance gave out.
But book/daddy's eventually gave out, too. I kept wishing for more, for something deeper and more reflective. We get a snapshot portrait, and McMurtry's sigh over the passing of these people and their collections, and 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.
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 job of culling his precious volumes, picking the right ones, herding them together on the 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 venerable generation of antiquarians is very much in his range.
Actually, book/daddy wonders: Perhaps the subject of the dying bookshop may be too close to him, too tender a spot in his heart to probe deeply. Texas, McMurtry has always been extremely ambivalent about, if not outright scornful of, especially "mythic Lone Star Texas." And ranching he has positively hated (as he details here). So although he has written reams of popular material about both Texas and cowboys, he has actually cast a cold eye on both -- filling his Texas with murderous storms, casual slaughters, idiot innocents, criminal psychopaths, faithless fools, hopeless buffoons, tragic failures.
In contrast, reading and book collecting were what saved McMurtry from such a life as a farmer, ranchhand or even veterinarian. Writing is a profesion 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 on the prairie.
Earlier this year, the LA Times reported on a gala dinner at the Los Angeles Public Library. McMurtry has always preferred Los Angeles over San Francisco -- it's the sunlight, he explains, vs. the fog. For a company town that is usually derided by novelists-turned-frustrated-screenwriters, LA has responded warmly to a Pulitzer Prize-winning (and, of course, Oscar-winning) author's affection: 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 when a young, bookish writer from Texas moved there in 1963.
And now that wonderland is entirely 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; notoriously crusty, even acerbic, he's not comfortable "on display." But that evening, as he recalled those stores (he was still able to list 75 of them by name), and as he read (or tried to read) Philip Larkin's elegiac poem "Going, Going," 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"), the 72-year-old author had damp eyes and a faltering voice.
- This Thursday, July 17, as part of the NasherSalon Series, I moderated a public conversation with Larry McMurtry and co-author Diana Ossana. The evening was sold out.
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