A couple of weeks ago The New York Times had a review of Larry McMurtry’s new book, Books: A Memoir. The review was not especially strong, explaining that McMurtry’s narrative was disjointed and his stories were too often dropped before they were developed. I immediately ordered the book despite the caveats raised by the Times.
Books: A Memoir arrived quickly, and I read it yesterday. The Times review as accurate; and as I read I wished that McMurtry had better developed his stories; yet, Books: A Memoir was wonderful.
When I first opened Books I was amazed and a little intimidated by the list of books that McMurtry has published. My response was the kind had by someone who can’t write books when faced with another who seems to have written so many with such ease and success. But surely I read too much into a simple list. Near the end of Books, Murtry talks about himself as a writer, describing writing as “neither a keen pleasure nor a hated chore.” He calls it “simply my vocation.”
I have read only two of McMurtry’s earlier books—All of My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers and The Last Picture Show. The film of the latter is among my favorites, and I watch it every couple of years. A copy of McMurtry’s Roads sits on my library shelves, and I look forward to reading it because my own interest in travelling American roads is only a little less strong than my interest in reading. I have read regularly the reviews that McMurtry has published in the New York Review of Books, which are strikingly well informed, giving the impression of a writer who has exceptional facility with a broad body of knowledge.
Books is not about the vocation of writing books or the writing life, it is about what McMurtry calls “a powerful competitor” to writing: book buying. Books is about having books—searching for, handling, accumulating, and then selling books. It is about book collections and the book trade.
McMurtry says the “antiquarian book trade is an anecdotal culture.” Books fits that culture as a succession of anecdotes. His chapters are fragments of memories, barely shaped into stories. Still, it holds the shape and stuff of a life about which McMurtry has cared—it has the joy of experience and the pleasure of various characters. That experience and those characters provide a sociology of America and show our social structuring.
Books reminded me of a used bookstore. Its short chapters, one after another, were like the piles of books that crowd aisles. It had valuable finds amid dross. It was all a pleasure—one enjoys looking through the piles and scanning the books on the shelves, pulling out the interesting ones to see how they feel.
From its beginning, Books made my imagination hum. I could read only a few sentences before my memories would overwhelm my concentration, and the words on the page would fuzz before the vivid images in my reveries. McMurtry begins Books by telling us that his parents had not read him stories as a child, and he tells us where he discovers stories in the first books that he acquires. And I was thinking about being read to as a child and thinking about my first books. I was thinking about the consuming desire for books and the pleasure of reading. I would read few paragraphs then put Books aside to reach for my pen.
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Larry McMurtry, 2008. Books: A Memoir. Simon & Schuster, New York.