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>Books: A Memoir – Larry McMurtry

>No, a bookshelf didn’t fall over on me and crush me in an avalanche of hardback volumes. I’m still here, but come to think of it, that wouldn’t exactly be a terrible way to go.

My feeble excuse is writer’s block. I’ve given notice at my current job, and I must write my resume and let the jobhunt begin in earnest. And therein lies the block. The laugh’s on me — I want to venture more into teaching writing, but I freeze up at a simple little task like a resume. Something’s got to crack this frozen sea within me and soon. On the bright side, I’ll have more empathy for any future students who have difficulty writing.

Meanwhile, blogging’s not going any better, but enough’s enough. I’ll share the notes I took while reading Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry.

This book is not without flaws. It is really short, and for the amount of money the publisher charged for this book, it’s a crying shame and a shameful crime that there are so many blank pages within. Also, it’s written in a fragmented and splintery style that reads like a first or second draft. I’m so concerned that this slight offering is proof that McMurtry’s general health as well as his literary powers are in decline.

Having said all of that, I love Books: A Memoir. When I finished it, I was hungry for more anecdotes about Larry McMurtry’s life as a book collector and reader.

Larry McMurtry was born in Archer City, Texas in 1936 into what he called a “bookless” house. When his older cousin went off to WWII, he first dropped by the McMurtry ranch with a box of his boyhood books –19 adventure stories — for young Larry, and a lifelong love affair with books was born. This box of books is McMurtry’s madeline, and he refers to this gift numerous times in Books: A Memoir. “Very quickly,” he writes, “once I had my 19 books, I realized that reading was probably the cheapest and most stable pleasure of life.” He also comments, when discussing the boom of technological gadgets in the past few years, “I nowadays have the feeling that not only are most bookmen eccentrics, but even the act they support –reading — is itself an eccentricity now, if a mild one.”

Second only to reading, McMurtry loves being a “bookman” — hunting and gathering and selling books. He turned to that rather than to being a writer-in-residence at some prestigious university because handling and hauling books was physical labor which felt more like real work, given his family’s background as cowboys and ranchers.

McMurtry admits that he is an anomaly among bookmen (which includes women). “Many bookmen, and some of the best among them rarely, if ever, read. The acquire and they estimate and they sell; they collate, measure, hype. They read catalogues, they look in bibliographies, they submit quotes. But they don’t have time to read.”

In all of his years as a bookman, McMurtry has come across some interesting book collections. I was startled then charmed at how specialized (not to mention bizarre!) book collections can be. Here are some of those included in this book: Several hundred books about Byzantine coinage; a library consisting of hundreds of copies of The Great Gatsby; books by H.G. Wells; novels that poets wrote; and American erotica of the Depression era. After reading this, I wanted a weird collection of my own; I was irked that my own shelves lacked any real signs of eccentricity. After comforting myself that my Korea books and Don Robertson novels are a small start in that direction, I began to wonder if any other bloggers have strange collections. I’d love it if you ‘fessed up. Now.

In McMurtry’s personal collection of 28,000 books (Dear Mr. McMurtry, Can I come over?…) his own “odd shelf” (as Anne Fadiman called it in Ex Libris) consists of books written by women travelers that dates back a century or two. (He calls this collection his “lady travelers”. First “bookmen” and now this, but I can’t help but admire him for refusing to even acknowledge that thorny thicket known as PC.) I got excited at this revelation, wondering if he has Josie Dew’s books. (Among others, she wrote The Sun In My Eyes, a recounting of her bicycling adventures across Asia.)

It was also fun to read about McMurtry’s reading streaks. Back in the early 70s, he read The Guns of August and Nicholas & Alexandra around the same time and got hooked on reading about World War I. After a few years, he moved on to WWII, but he’s still “much more engrossed by WWI.”

A darker streak, and one that renewed my worries about his health was when McMurtry mentioned that he “recently got depressed for 1.5 years and could only read a minor literary figure named James Lees-Milne who wrote several books including 12 volumes of diaries 1942-1997” which McMurtry “became dependent upon during my depression.” He has read all 12 volumes several times and is sure he’ll “keep rereading them for the rest of my life.” Of his love for rereading, McMurtry writes, “If I once read for adventure, I now read for security.”

I visited McMurtry’s Book Town in Archer City several years ago, so when he writes about it in the final pages, I could more fully appreciate what I noticed with pleasure when I was there — his scrupulous attention to what is on his shelves: “One essential practice is the purge. Junk inevitably seeps in, and the iron rule is that good books do not pull bad books up: bad books pull good books down.” I laughed out loud when he referred to a customer’s habit of always poking through piles of books stacked on the floor as “the midden instinct”.
I want to return to Archer City so bad. Some of my sweetest dreams have Book Town as their backdrop.

Although there is much that is enjoyable about Books: A Memoir, because it is a little on the skimpy side, I wouldn’t recommend buying it unless you’re a true McMurtry fan or you have an “odd shelf” for books about books. However, you should run, not walk to your nearest library and check it out or put yourself on the reserve list.


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