Books: A Memoir
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. His first wife, I am told, was a proper English housewife --- thus, in America, he usually went for wild, drug taking, motorcycle girls…Anthony's method…was to marry wild American girls and turn them into proper English housewives --- if they submitted to this change he rapidly lost interest. He was a very attractive man, even though, for a time, he had no front teeth, these having been knocked out by a cricket ball when he was nine. He lost his bridge and, for some years, didn't bother to replace it."
There are gems of great writing like this throughout the book. And we learn that in all his decades of operating a major bookshop in the Georgetown district of the nation's capital, "we sold only one real book to a member of Congress." Now there is a shock!
But for as much joy as there is in this book about books, there is also a subtle sadness. After all, the antiquarian book dealer makes his living when people die and their precious libraries are broken up and sold by relatives. McMurtry calls this "the silent migration of books." Then, there is the death of independent bookstores all over the country, driven out of business by the ubiquitous chains. Great old stores like Discover in San Francisco, the Heritage Book Shop in Los Angeles and the Phoenix Bookshop in New York City appear in these pages. All gone forever, part of the Lost World. Even McMurtry's own shop in DC eventually gave way to a Pottery Barn of all insults.
McMurtry writes a simple yet beautiful sentence to describe when family members end up breaking up personal libraries that took years of hard labor to amass and gave endless satisfaction to their owners: "Something was over, and that was that."
But for those of us who have made a living in the word business, McMurtry's wonderful little book comes at a time when we, unimaginably, find ourselves thinking not about retirement plans but whether books and their cousins in serving civilization, newspapers, may be the thing that is over. So far in 2008, 6,000 journalists have lost their jobs and some newspaper stocks have dropped by 84% over the past year. The San Francisco Chronicle is losing $1 million a week. The business is dying.
And for those of us who must supplement our writing income not by selling books but by teaching college kids, we soon learn the depressing truth of America in 2008: young people are not reading either newspapers or books. McMurtry acknowledges this:
"I nowadays have a feeling that not only are most bookmen eccentrics, but even the act they support --- reading --- is an eccentricity now, if a mild one." But he remains optimistic about the future. He writes, "Very quickly, once I had my 19 books, I realized that reading was the cheapest and most stable pleasure in life. Sometimes books excite me, sometimes they sustain me, but rarely do they disappoint me --- as books, that is, if not necessarily the poetry, history, or fiction that they contain."
One can only hope that another young person will one day wander into one of the musty old bookstores remaining, pick up a book that has existed for centuries and be filled with awe and captivated by the magic that is books. Upon that child, the fate of this democracy and perhaps even our civilization may just depend.
For anybody who loves books and reading, BOOKS: A Memoir will be a great read and a treasured addition to your personal library.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on July 8, 2008