Larry McMurtry has had as great an influence on books and movies as any living writer over the last half-century. From THE LAST PICTURE SHOW to LONESOME DOVE, he has penned 30 novels and 41 books, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. As a Hollywood screenwriter he won an Academy Award for Brokeback Mountain and has written 70 scripts.
Who would have guessed, as he tells us in BOOKS: A Memoir, that by the mid-1970s "Writing was my vocation, but I had written a lot, and it was no longer exactly a passion." And this was years before LONESOME DOVE and decades before Brokeback Mountain.
BOOKS: A Memoir is the story of McMurtry's real passion in life: book buying and selling. Over the years he has handled at least a million volumes as a bookseller. He owned a bookstore in Washington, D.C. for 36 years and now has turned his hometown of Archer City, Texas, into a book town where he owns six buildings, five of them filled with books. Indeed, you have a choice of 300,000 volumes to purchase when you enter his store, the appropriately titled Booked Up.
But you probably won't be able to find a latte or scone for sale in the joint. BOOKS: A Memoir is a beautifully written look into the still existing but little known world of antiquarian book dealers. And unfortunately, it soon might be a Lost World, grinded down beneath chain stores and a generation raised on Gameboys, not the Hardy Boys.
This work also gives us insights into the making of a great American writer. Who but McMurtry could write such a perfect sentence: "I don't remember either of my parents ever reading me a story --- perhaps that's why I've made up so many."
There were no books around his Texas ranch house in his earliest years, but then at the age of six, a cousin going off to World War II gave him a treasure --- a box containing 19 books. His life was forever changed. In his isolated rural setting, he tells us, "I came to reading before I came to American popular culture generally…"
McMurtry devoured his cousin's books multiple times and soon, as a young man, was searching through musty old bookstores, looking for books to read. He describes coming across shelves of Modern Library classics in Lovelace's Bookshop in Archer City and being filled "with a mixture of awe and fear." I was reminded of Pete Hamill's description of the awe he felt as a young boy exploring the Brooklyn Public Library and discovering THE ARABIAN NIGHTS. I wonder how much kids lose today when they don't have a similar experience. Not to mention our cultural life.
Soon McMurtry progresses from book scout to bookseller. As a young writer, Hollywood buys one of his early books and turns it into the movie Hud. And instead of purchasing a jazzy car and fancy house, like many of us writers would, his work in films will help him buy all or part of 30 bookstores over the years.
The antiquarian bookseller is like a deep sea fisherman, searching through garage sales, estate sales and auctions for the profitable find. And there is always the big fish that got away, such as when McMurtry sells a rare book, unknowingly for $45, and it ends up later being sold for $5,000.
We meet some of the wonderfully eccentric characters in this world, characters who could easily fill a McMurtry novel. For example, there is the English bookseller Anthony Newnham. McMurtry writes:
"Anthony Newnham tended to marry against type. H