I’ve read and enjoyed some of Larry McMurtry’s books before, both fiction and non-fiction , and I love reading. So, when I came across this latest book of his with its cover showing a well stocked bookshelf, I immediately plumped for it. It turned out to be a pretty good book but less than what I had expected.
Books: A Memoir is McMurtry’s account of how he acquired his passion for books and became an astute book scout and collector who would go on to open bookstores in several cities including Houston, Washington D.C and Archer City, Texas. The most interesting parts of the book , for me , are the early chapters where McMurtry describes growing up in a ‘ bookless’ environment on a hardscrabble Texas ranch and how the gift of a box of nineteen books transformed his life. In his charming, easy going style, he writes about his early years in Archer City where his parents moved when he was just seven and where he developed his literary tastes. For someone like me, who belongs to the same generation and is similarly fond of reading, it is nostalgic to hear about his early experiences with books since I too read some of those very same comics and books. McMurtry then goes on to tell us about his brief stay at Rice and how he got into the book business.
It is this middle portion of the book about his experiences in buying and selling books which I found less absorbing. True, there are some interesting anecdotes , some eccentric characters and ,through it all, his love of books comes across loud and clear but, as he himself remarks, “…why should readers be interested in the fact that in 1958 or so I paid Ted Brown $7.50 for a nice copy of The Anatomy of Melancholy? …. unless the writer can somehow tap deeper sentiments..”. Here and there are some nuggets as , for example, “Eventually, all novelists, if they persist too long, get worse.” ( I couldn’t agree more ). And again, ” Reading itself may have already become a mandarin pursuit- I’m using the term Cyril Conolly adopted years ago.” But these scattered gems were not sufficent to hold my interest in the nitty gritty of bookselling, well as McMurtry writes. I wish that he had been a bit more forthcoming about himself, since his very brief references to his private life only give rise to many unanswered questions. He does tell us that he married Jo Ballard Scott in 1959 and that they had a son James before they divorced several years later. He does mention moving to Washington with his son James , and there is a reference to a grandson but nothing more about his life , post divorce. I realize this is about his life in books but I ,for one, would have liked to know more about Larry McMurtry, the man.
The last part of the book picks up considerably as McMurtry gives us his thoughts on several themes about books and their place in our society. The manner in which the Internet is affecting our reading habits. How libraries are increasingly about more than just books. The decline of reading.His views on audio books. The effect of the big chains like Barnes and Noble on smaller bookstores.McMurtry also poses questions like” Is reading on the way to becoming extinct?”
It speaks to McMurtry’s love of books that inspite of being a best selling author and an Oscar winning screenwriter ( for Brokeback Mountain ) that he considers himself , first and foremost, a ‘bookman’, a book scout and book seller. It is a futher testament to his love of books that he seems most proud of his exploits in this field, his latest endeavor being the establishment of a vast bookstore with over 300,000 volumes in Archer City , Texas. In Books: A Memoir, he conveys to us some of that excitement for books that he feels so strongly.
Books: A Memoir. Larry McMurtry. Published by Simon and Schuster, ( 2008). 257 pages.$ 24.