by Larry McMurtry
Published by Simon & Schuster
272 pages, 2008
Book ’em, Larry
Reviewed by Stephen Miller
Larry McMurtry’s literary street cred needs no boost from anyone. The author of, most famously, The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove and Terms of Endearment has been pounding the keys of his typewriter for well over 40 years. Along the way, he’s stumbled into Hollywood, winning an Academy Award for his screenplay of E. Annie Proulx’s short story, “Brokeback Mountain”. What is perhaps less well-known is that during all of this time, McMurtry has also been a book scout, rare and antiquarian book dealer, and proprietor of Booked Up, a sprawling complex of used bookstores managed in a highly personalized and somewhat defiant style (meaning no sales via the Internet and only two catalogs in 35 years). Transplanted from the tony environs of Washington D.C.’s Georgetown to McMurtry’s long-time residence of Archer City, Texas, it’s the American version of the Welsh book destination Hay-on-Wye, quite an achievement for a boy who grew up in a town with no books. In Books, McMurtry offers the third mini-memoir following Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen and Roads.
Written in 109 short segments, one as brief as a single paragraph and others only a few sentences longer, McMurtry guides us through his development as a book lover. His parents never read to him, and while storytelling was alive and well in the McMurtry household, it always took on the form of oral tradition. Then, in 1942, six-year old Larry received a package that would change his life forever: a box of 19 books deposited at the house by a distant cousin heading off to World War II. From that point, the voraciousness that has characterized McMurtry’s various professional guises took hold.
From there, McMurtry’s love affair with the printed word followed him to Rice University in Houston to San Francisco, Los Angeles and back to San Francisco, over to Europe, and eventually to Georgetown and Archer City. He made friendships with obscure yet legendary book scouts like Ike Brussel, who immodestly had “Last of the Great Scouts” printed on quote cards. He crossed paths with antiquarian book dealers too numerous to mention (and most of them fairly unmemorable for someone like me who is not in the sphere of rare books). Along the way, we’re told of book coups and errors in judgment. See McMurtry come across a copy of Anthony Powell’s From a View to a Death marked for $7.50, which he sold later that day for $350. See Larry and his Booked Up partner buy the entire inventory of a bookstore, only to repeat it years later once it had been restocked. And then there are the oddball moments of serendipity that give this book its charm:
McMurtry is nothing if not democratic in his tastes. He’ll buy a rare volume for several thousand dollars, but he’s perfectly content to clean out a bookstore with boxes of paperbacks for fifty cents each. Part of McMurtry’s success clearly lies with timing -- he got into the book trade just at the genesis of the paperback revolution. Cheap noir books with lurid covers became irresistible. McMurtry also chooses not to become overly attracted to first editions or signed copies. A rare book, in whatever iteration, is his quest, which carries the hallmarks of acquiring rather than collecting.
For a writer not afraid to “go long” in his narratives, Books seems a little disjointed. The short chapters resemble diary entries. Sometimes it all flows together, sometimes there’s an amount of backfill that is needed to maintain the continuity. And, after a while, the anecdotes all seem to run together. From which bookshop in which town did McMurtry score the “brilliant” copy of They Shoot Horse, Don’t They? for fifty cents? Does it matter? And what made it so brilliant? It’s almost like being at Thanksgiving dinner with an eccentric uncle -- let him go on and maybe he’ll circle back around.
However, towards the end of this quirky book, McMurtry offers his thoughts that buying and selling is only one part of the book trade, and not even the most important.
And, no doubt, they’ll want to read Larry McMurtry. | August 2008