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Books: A Memoirby Larry McMurtry
Synopses & Reviews
In a prolific life of singular literary achievement, Larry McMurtry has succeeded in a variety of genres: in coming-of-age novels like The Last Picture Show; in collections of essays like In a Narrow Grave; and in the reinvention of the Western on a grand scale in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Lonesome Dove.
Now, in Books: A Memoir, McMurtry writes about his endless passion for books: as a boy growing up in a largely bookless world; as a young man devouring the vastness of literature with astonishing energy; as a fledgling writer and family man; and above all, as one of America's most prominent bookmen. He takes us on his journey to becoming an astute, adventurous book scout and collector who would eventually open stores of rare and collectible editions in Georgetown, Houston, and finally, in his previously bookless hometown of Archer City, Texas.
In this work of extraordinary charm, grace, and good humor, McMurtry recounts his life as both a reader and a writer, how the countless books he has read worked to form his literary tastes, while giving us a lively look at the eccentrics who collect, sell, or simply lust after rare volumes. Books: A Memoir is like the best kind of diary — full of McMurtry's wonderful anecdotes, amazing characters, engaging gossip, and shrewd observations about authors, book people, literature, and the author himself. At once chatty, revealing, and deeply satisfying, Books is, like McMurtry, erudite, life loving, and filled with excellent stories. It is a book to be savored and enjoyed again and again.
"McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) calls this 'a book about my life with books.' He begins with his Texas childhood in an isolated, 'totally bookless' ranch house. His life changed in 1942 when a cousin, off to enlist, gave McMurtry a box of 19 adventure books, initiating what eventually became his personal library of 28,000 books. 'Forming that library, and reading it, is surely one of the principal achievements of my life,' he writes, deftly interweaving book-collecting memories with autobiographical milestones. When his family moved to Archer City, Tex., he found more books, plus magazines, films and comic books. In Houston, attending Rice, he explored the 600,000 volumes in the 'wonderful open-stack Fondren Library... heaven!' In 1971, after years of collecting, he opened his own bookstore, Booked Up, in Georgetown, Tex., relocating in 1996 to Archer City, where he created a 'book town' by filling five buildings with 300,000 books. McMurtry offers opinions on everything from bookplates and audiobooks to the cyber revolution and 1950s paperbacks: 'Paperback covers, many very sexy, were the advance guard of the rapid breakdown of sexual restraint among the middle classes almost everywhere.' While there are anecdotes about bookshops and crafty dealers, McMurtry is at his best when he uses his considerable skills as a writer to recreate moments from his personal past. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
With friends of literature like this, who needs enemies? Isn't it enough that books are under assault by a zombie armada of Facebook, PDA's, iPods, iPhones and Nintendo DS's? Did Fernando Baez and Larry McMurtry have to write books, ostensibly celebrating books, that are so stultifying to read that they make almost any other activity — even a few aimless hours spent cyber-touring... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Webkinz World — seem more engrossing? Taken together, "A Universal History of the Destruction of Books" and "Books: A Memoir" deliver a one-two punch of New Age mysticism and cowboy cornpone that just about decks any viable defense of bibliophilia. Let's start with Baez's migraine-trigger of a book. As his title indicates, Baez seeks to chronicle the multitudinous ways books have been destroyed over the millennia. Starting in 4,100 B.C. with ancient Sumer and picking his way through the tablet smashings, papyrus shreddings, book burnings and library pillagings of the Hittites, Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese, Vikings, Turks, Crusaders, conquistadors, Nazis and communists (among others), Baez ends this encyclopedic tour of the Inferno with the recent destruction of over a million books in the National Library in Baghdad. The death toll is, indeed, staggering. Baez, who spent 12 years researching this history, keeps up a page-by-page tally of annihilation. Here's a sampling: "Even the most optimistic estimates calculate that 75 percent of ancient Greek literature, philosophy, and science has been lost." Fast forward a few dozen centuries or so to World War II: "The Commission for Jewish-European Cultural Reconstruction determined in 1933 that there were 469 collections of Jewish books. ... At the end of the war, not even one-quarter of those books remained." A big problem with "A Universal History" is that the destruction is just so, well, universal that after a few chapters a reader simply can't ingest any more oblivion. And while it's interesting to speculate about the books that have been lost (the second book of Aristotle's "Poetics," on comedy, is the most famous lacuna in literary history), it's hard to muster sympathy for so much that's unknown: looted family archive tablets from Ancient Ur, the vanished library of Roman book collector Serenus Sammonicus and so on and so on. Baez, though, mourns all. In his introduction, he enumerates the myriad ways books can be destroyed and mystically concludes: "We should consider as well how many books have been destroyed because they weren't published. ... how many books were left behind on the beach, in the subway, on a park bench. It's hard to respond to these disquieting thoughts, but the truth is that at this very moment, while you read these lines, at least one book disappears forever." One person's fetishistic disquiet is another person's relief. Do all books deserve to be published and preserved? Even the lousy ones? Larry McMurtry might dang well say, "Yup." As a lifelong book collector, scout and bookstore owner (and author of such whopping hit novels as "Terms of Endearment" and "Lonesome Dove"), McMurtry has scooped up everything from comics to pulp fiction to fine editions of Mark Twain to volumes of travel books written by women. Although he grew up in a bookless household during the Great Depression, he now owns a personal library of more than 28,000 volumes. Don't expect to get much insight, however, into his passion for literature here. For a guy who's made a tidy living by storytelling, he can barely be bothered to exhale a narrative: Chapters run three pages long — or fewer — and the plotline of his reminiscences about booksellers he's known and customers he's served simply evaporates like spittle on a hot coal. For some 36 years, McMurtry and his partner, Marcia Carter, ran Booked Up in Georgetown (Washington, D.C.), a collectible and rare books shop that has since moved to Archer City, Tex. In the golden days of the store's tenure on M Street, Alice Roosevelt Longworth dropped in (for mysteries), and twice a year so did a guy with a ruler who'd measure books on the shelves and buy at least $2,000 worth of the smaller volumes. Then there was the day a homeless girl with a bloody foot turned up at the store. "We got her medical attention," recalls McMurtry, "and she easily survived, after which we learned that she was a descendant of Button Gwinnett, whose signature is the most elusive of all the signers of our Declaration of Independence." Huh? If you've ever been a captive audience of free-form anecdotes on a plane ride, you know how exasperating the experience is. Such stories are not entertaining enough to merit the telling, and yet they contain so many narrative holes that they maddeningly nag at a listener or reader. How does one's descent from Button Gwinnett come up in casual conversation over a bloody foot? Since the girl was homeless, how does McMurtry even know her odd claim was reliable? And why, why, why is he filling up this slim memoir with such ephemera? To be fair, McMurtry does tell one great yarn here about the day he was appraising a library in Northwest Washington and stumbled upon a working copy of "The Whale," the English version of "Moby-Dick." The copy turned out to have belonged to a minor English writer, Charles Reade, who took on the burden of abridging "Moby-Dick" for English audiences. Opening the volume, McMurtry saw that Reade took up his duties on page one: "He began his editorial work by drawing a bold line through 'Call me Ishmael.'" If he had about 20 more anecdotes like that one, McMurtry would have been able to compose a nice little memoir about a life in books. No matter. As a brand-name best-selling author, he has probably already bought a few more truckloads of rare books to add to his library with the advance he received for this trifle. And if Fernando Baez is to be believed, the world would be the poorer if "Books: A Memoir" had never been published. Maureen Corrigan is book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air" and author of the literary memoir "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading." Reviewed by Marie AranaMaureen Corrigan, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"In his latest ruminating memoir, a low-key, shambling gathering of pithy essays, McMurtry recounts his adventures collecting comics, penny dreadfuls, pulp fiction, travel writing, and rare books, and setting up his bookstores." Booklist
"A pleasant amble in Bookland and a treat for the bookishly inclined, as well as for McMurtry buffs." Kirkus Reviews
McMurtry, who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, returns with a fascinating and surprisingly intimate memoir of his lifelong passion of buying, selling, and collecting rare and antiquarian books.
About the Author
Larry McMurtry, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is the author of twenty-six novels, three collections of essays, two memoirs, more than thirty screenplays, and is the editor of a collection of short stories of the modern West. He lives in Archer City, Texas.
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