Books: A Memoir
by Larry McMurtry
Reviewed by Michael Dirda
New York Review of Books
Memoirs are inherently wistful, but Larry McMurtry's reminiscences of his life with books -- not as a novelist but as a reader, book scout, and bookstore owner -- are especially valedictory. Nearly every page sounds a note of farewell, of stoic, weary resignation, of time running out. While McMurtry's voice remains modest, low-key, and immensely sympathetic, no amount of charm can disguise a pervasive melancholy in his pages. As he says, "A bookman's love of books is a love of books, not merely of the information in them." But, he fears, the age of eagerly turned pages is passing:
Today the sight that discourages book people most is to walk into a public library and see computers where books used to be. In many cases not even the librarians want books to be there. What consumers want now is information, and information increasingly comes from computers.
That is a preference I can't grasp, much less share, though I'm well aware that computers have many valid uses. They save lives, and they make research in most cases a thing that's almost instantaneous.
They do many good things.
But they don't really do what books do, and why should they usurp the chief function of a public library, which is to provide readers access to books? Books can accommodate the proximity of computers but it doesn't seem to work the other way around. Computers now literally drive out books from the place that should, by definition, be books' own home: the library.
Books, McMurtry's new memoir, covers some of the same ground as his much-loved Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen (1999). In those earlier "reflections at sixty and beyond" the novelist frequently discussed his life as a reader-writer-bookman. In essence, Books supplements those pages, even while repeating some of the same stories and arguments. But McMurtry's prose is now looser, more rambling; he even calls his writing "prattle" and sometimes worries that he's just telling "fish stories" of interest only to other book dealers and collectors. He may be partially right. Much of the time he simply alludes to one defunct bookstore after another and seldom spends enough time giving real narrative life to his friends, rivals, and colleagues in the trade. Too often Books just feels spotty and hit-or-miss. Yet despite its imperfections, a good many readers will nonetheless enjoy every page.
Like so much of Larry McMurtry's writing, Books begins and ends in Archer City, the hardscrabble Texas town where he was born and where he now owns what he refers to as a mansion and several bookstores. He didn't start out as a reader by any means. Cattle ranching was the family business -- "McMurtry Means Beef" -- and there were virtually no books in the house. As a consequence, young Larry grew up hearing rather than reading stories. But one day in 1942, a cousin on his way to war left the twelve-year-old a box of cheap adventure fiction from the 1930s. The titles were, he recalls, "on the order of Jerry Todd in the Whispering Cave or Poppy Ott and the Stuttering Parrot. The first book I actually read was an adventure involving the Canadian Mounties, called Sergeant Silk: The Prairie Scout." In truth, what could have better suited a dreamy boy than just such wonderful trash? After all, real readers always read for excitement; only the nature of that excitement changes through life. The immensely learned man of letters Guy Davenport discovered his vocation when a South Carolina neighbor lent him a novel about Tarzan.
Soon, young McMurtry was visiting newsstands and drugstores in Wichita Falls (where his father attended weekly livestock auctions there), picking up paperbacks of Mickey Spillane's I, the Jury and anything else that caught his wandering eye. For a long time, he tells us, "getting the books I wanted to read was the main reason for the pursuit." But the passion for words on the page grew and grew. "I never wanted to be without books I wanted to read, and if I could be reading four or five books at the same time, so much the better."
Eventually, McMurtry went off to Rice University, then North Texas State University, married, finished his first novel (Horseman, Pass By, filmed as Hud starring Paul Newman), received a Stegner writing fellowship to Stanford, and worked desultorily on his second book (Leaving Cheyenne). "My method of writing a novel," he tells us, "was, from the first, to get up early and dash off five pages of narrative. That is still my method, though now I dash off ten pages a day. I write every day, ignoring holidays and weekends." Once he'd put in his daily stint -- at a typewriter both then and now -- McMurtry would go out scouting for treasures in the used bookstores of San Francisco and the Bay Area. As McMurtry's antiques-collecting hero in Cadillac Jack says, the scout's mantra is "anything can be anywhere."
A word more about scouting.
People commonly imagine that "bookmen" are shy, harmless folk, absentminded, with thick glasses, sporting tweeds and smoking briar pipes. Not scouts. Go to any big, well-advertised charity or antiquarian book fair just before it opens. If you wander to the front of the immensely long line -- full of people with sturdy L.L. Bean canvas bags and carts of various kinds -- you will notice men with lean and hungry looks. In buckskin, they might pass for gunslingers out of McMurtry's own Lonesome Dove. A few might also be built like fullbacks or rugby players, and probably answer to the name Tiny. These are book scouts, men -- and they are virtually all men -- who roam the world's estate sales and church bazaars, thrift stores, antique shops, and auction houses, who check out the books for sale in libraries and even those used as accent pieces in furniture departments. They live by their knowledge and their wits and their persistence. It's as hardscrabble a life as any in a Texas cowtown.
In many cases, scouts will have traveled hundreds of miles for a big sale and then camped out overnight so as to be among the first people in line. When the doors open, they will run, not walk, to the categories where the high-end collectibles might lurk, to the tables marked "Rare," "Modern Firsts," "Art and Photography," "Vintage." Being at the front of the line may give them only a few seconds' advantage, but that's all a professional often needs. Sometimes, though, things can get tense, or even ugly. I once saw a serious fistfight break out over the Olympia Press first edition of Lolita.
For many years, Larry McMurtry was one of the best scouts in the country. In later life, according to Washington, D.C., lore, he used to hire an impecunious college student to camp out at the big local sales for him. Then, just before the doors opened to the ravening hordes, he would waltz in and take his factotum's place in line. People would sometimes gripe. But scouting isn't a profession for gentlemen.
"Scouts," writes McMurtry "are the seed carriers, a vital link to the food chain of book selling. They have the time -- as most dealers don't -- to inspect junk shops and visit yard sales. At a yard sale in Tucson a complete run of Melville first editions turned up, and it included The Whale. They had all been rebound, with the original covers bound in" -- note the professional's eye for detail -- "but even so, they made a book scout's day."
San Francisco was always cold and gray, and McMurtry missed the sunshine, so he, his wife, and newborn son moved back to Texas, this time to Austin. There the young novelist and bookman became friends with Franklin Gilliam and Anthony Newnham, the proprietors of the famous Brick Row Book Shop, "surely the best bookshop in Texas at that time." McMurtry's affection for these two men brings out some of the best writing in his memoir:
Franklin Gilliam, originally from Texas (Cuero), was born out of his place and his age; he was meant to sit in his club, read The Times of London, occasionally look out the window and say "harrumph!" He was especially fond of trains. With his teammate, Anthony, he was, for a time, able to arrange long, cozy buying trips, always by train, across America, Canada, and the British Isles.
Anthony Newnham, by contrast, was a Byronic Englishman who, in the fullness of time, married something like nine women; these unions produced I don't know how many children. With the onset of pregnancy Anthony's interest in a given wife was likely to go into sharp decline.... Anthony knew nineteenth-century English books and autographs as well as any dealer I've known. For a time he had his own bookshop on the Isle of Wight, but he allowed Franklin to move him to Austin, where he produced a string of excellent catalogues with a heavy emphasis on the nineteenth century. Anthony was a very disciplined man, and energetic to an extreme, whereas his partner, Franklin, liked to wander around in his bathrobe drinking tea all morning, after which he would get dressed and amble off to a leisurely lunch; then he might catalogue a few books for his long a-building Southern catalogue, have a martini, and proceed to a long dinner, during which, well into the second or third bottle of wine, he would usually nod off....
Anthony Newnham tended mainly to marry against type. His first wife, I am told, was a proper English housewife -- thus, in America, he usually went for wild, drug-taking motorcycle girls.... He was a very attractive man, even though, for a time, he had no front teeth, these having been knocked out by a cricket ball when he was nine. He lost his bridge and, for some years, didn't bother to replace it.... All along he kept on marrying and siring children he could not support. Finally he went back to England, a child-support fugitive.... He fell dead, I'm told, while lifting a wineglass to his lips -- an ideal exit, all things considered.
By the 1970s bookseller McMurtry had moved to Washington, where he soon opened -- with his business partner Marcia Carter -- the celebrated Georgetown literary oasis called Booked Up. There it flourished for more than thirty years. In his chapters about Booked Up, McMurtry naturally emphasizes many of the regulars and notables, including Nina Matheson, who formed a fabulous H.G. Wells collection, and her husband William Matheson, chief of rare books at the Library of Congress, who collected novels written by poets. (Even at the most crowded used-book sale the dapper Bill Matheson would wear a conservative suit and tie, while he examined, slowly, meticulously, every volume of poetry and fiction.) The dotty Sheri Martinelli, a former girlfriend of E.E. Cummings and Ezra Pound, hinted that she might be willing to sell her letters from these poets. Wearing her trademark floppy hat, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt's daughter, once bought a couple of $2 mysteries. Sometimes McMurtry would glimpse "Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman accompanying old Governor Averell Harriman on his constitutional. The Harrimans then owned two houses side by side on N street -- a house for the art and a house for themselves." After some social maneuvering, McMurtry bought remnants of the library of Hugh Auchincloss from his widow Janice, mother of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
John Saumarez Smith, then managing director of Heywood Hill Bookshop in London (where Nancy Mitford once worked and whose customers included Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell), would stop in during yearly buying trips in search of private press titles and other expensive volumes -- especially when the exchange rates were good. The Mayfair bookman would often stay with the British ambassador David Bruce and his wife Evangeline. "If there was a true reader in Washington," writes McMurtry, "after Joe Alsop and myself, it was probably the distinguished diplomat David K.E. Bruce." This is certainly a remark that many Washingtonians will dispute. As a matter of fact, McMurtry doesn't seem to think much of the capital's readers. "In our thirty-two years in Georgetown," he notes,
we sold only one real book to a member of Congress. Senator Charles Mathias of Maryland bought a very fine Gibbon from us, and he read it.... Gary Hart, pre- and post-Donna Rice, often browsed, but I don't recall that he bought. And John Brademas, the liberal congressman from Indiana who was swept away by the Reagan Revolution, brooded over a volume of Lorca once or twice, but I don't recall that he bought it.
Booked Up always offered wonderful things, but I recall that there were few bargains -- it was clearly a high-end shop for serious collectors, usually with deep pockets. Those with only modest, rather than mutual, funds at their disposal could usually just sigh over beauties they would never possess. At one point Booked Up handled first editions of Newton's Principia Mathematica and Goya's Disasters of War. Eventually the two owners opened an annex with cheaper items, but the main shop was the true sanctum sanctorum, where McMurtry would chat with friends, behave either coldly or shyly -- depending on your viewpoint -- to fans of his books, and sometimes, so I hear, sport a sweatshirt reading "Minor Regional Novelist."
While being a general shop, Booked Up emphasized the kind of books that its owner himself liked to read: English and American literature, travel memoirs, history, classic works of scholarship. To borrow McMurtry's own remark about William Wreden, "he always had interesting books, which is the highest compliment one bookseller can pay another." I myself never bought much from Booked Up -- being a bargain-hunter at heart -- but the titles I do remember taking home indicate something of the shop's range: the medieval Book of Margery Kempe (from the annex), a scholarly reprint of Johnsonian Miscellanies (from upstairs), Madam Crowl's Ghost, a collection of supernatural tales by Sheridan Le Fanu, edited by his admirer and successor in the ghost story genre, M.R. James, and the Oxford edition, edited and annotated by Smith and Guthkelch, of Swift's A Tale of a Tub (purchased for my middle son on the day he was born.) All were, and are, in excellent condition.
In Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, McMurtry spoke of his personal library of 20,000 volumes; nine years later, it has grown to 28,000 volumes. Among the incidental pleasures of reading Books lies the discovery of what McMurtry himself collects and enjoys. In Archer City he has shelves of vintage paperbacks and once owned a considerable number of underground comics, including soft-core Italian fumetti. He remarks in passing that Thomas Pynchon's V is "in my opinion a masterpiece." One of his longest chapters describes his fascination with Gershon Legman, author of books about dirty jokes, limericks, and other erotic matters. (Legman's unpublished autobiography, which McMurtry read in manuscript, was to be called Peregrine Penis.)
McMurtry's most focused collection must be his two thousand volumes of travel narratives by women, though he likes travel writing in general, especially that by early-to-mid-twentieth-century British writers. He tells us that he particularly enjoys "the force of [Wilfred] Thesiger, the malice of Robert Byron, the sweep of Rebecca West, the charm of [Eric] Newby,... the irony of [Evelyn] Waugh." Tent Life in Siberia and the shocking Siberia and the Exile System, both by George Kennan (a great uncle of the diplo-mat and historian), receive an entire chapter.
McMurtry mentions that he returns to Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading every five years or so. Even more surprisingly, he notes that "I like to read Arnold Bennett, Virginia Woolf's strictures notwithstanding, and have acquired -- I can't quite say 'collected' -- some 110 volumes of his work." While we associate McMurtry with the American West, he confesses to an ongoing fascination with English political biography, having "long studied the rivalry between Balfour and Curzon -- if I knew enough I'd write a novel about the two rivals." His most recent passions are studies of the Rothschilds and books about World Wars I and II, especially biographies and accounts of the major battles. "I will no doubt be occupied with the literature of the two wars for the rest of my life."
He no longer seems to enjoy novels. For a long time, McMurtry says, he used to review a lot of fiction for various newspapers and periodicals, but one day just couldn't do it any longer. "I burned out as a reader of fiction. The last novel I reviewed was Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist, which I did for The New York Times Book Review." When the late Barbara Epstein of The New York Review of Books offered him "choice bits of fiction -- Charles Frazier, Cormac McCarthy," he writes, "I knew I couldn't read them, and sent them back."
More and more, McMurtry confesses, he just prefers to settle down with old favorites. "If I once read for adventure, I now read for security. How nice to be able to return to what won't change." He specifically points to Slowly Down the Ganges, a wonderful travel book by Eric Newby, I've now read many times." But then he continues more plaintively:
I think sometimes that I'm angry with my library because I know that I can't reread it all. I would like to, but the time is not there. It is this, I think, that produces the slight sense of alienation that I feel when I'm together with my books now. They need to find other readers soon -- ideally they will be my son and grandson, but if not them, other book lovers.
That sense of winding down, of a summing up, recurs throughout Books. Periodically McMurtry comments on what he views as his own very modest literary achievement:
As I went on through life I wrote novel after novel, to the number of about thirty. Most were good, three or four were indifferent to bad, and three or four were really good. None, to my regret, were great, although my long Western Lonesome Dove was very popular —the miniseries made from it was even more popular.
Popularity, of course, is not the same as greatness.
(He never mentions that it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but remarks that he considers it to be Gone with the Wind of the West".) After briefly praising his singer-songwriter son James, McMurtry adds: "I suspect that the mark he has made artistically is more likely to be indelible than the mark I have made. Great songs outlast all but the greatest prose." That may be an exaggeration but McMurtry admits to few illusions:
One reason I've hung on to book selling is that it's progressive -- the opposite of writing, pretty much. Eventually, all novelists, if they persist too long, get worse. No reason to name names, since no one is spared. Writing great fiction involves some combination of energy and imagination that cannot be energized or realized forever. Strong talents can simply exhaust their gift, and they do.
It is a truism that many novels and films about the American West, including some of Larry McMurtry's, are elegies for the passing of a heroic age. The era of long cattle drives and Indian wars, of buffalo hunters and scouts, of quiet men with fast six-guns will soon be over. Just so, McMurtry recognizes that his beloved bookdealing may have entered its twilight, first because of rising rents and more recently because of the Internet:
The 1970s...was part of the sad era that saw the closing of downtown urban bookshops in many American cities. The great dinosaurs began to disappear: Leary's in Philadelphia, Lowdermilks in Washington, Goodspeed's on Milk Street in Boston, Dauber & Pine and various others in New York City, Acres of Books in Cincinnati, and a little later, the Holmes Book Company in Oakland. These were venerable bookshops all, and those who loved them miss them still.
What these closings revealed was no secret to anyone in the trade: secondhand books can't keep up with downtown real estate values.
In the 1990s McMurtry moved Booked Up from Georgetown to Archer City, hoping to establish his hometown as a major used-book emporium on the order of those old "dinosaurs" or of the famous "book town" of Hay-on-Wye in England. But with the rise of on-line bookselling, anyone could suddenly be a dealer, once-scarce titles suddenly seemed to be readily available, and fewer casual readers bothered to visit walk-in shops. The world was now one big virtual bookstore, where it was easy to just click and buy. Why travel to Archer City? Of course, people who ask that question don't know the serendipitous pleasures of browsing through piles of books and finding the unexpected.
Soon even scouting began to change. Nowadays at fairs, you see fewer of the old-style scouts, the men with the steel-trap memories for a rare modern high spot, who can tell you -- as McMurtry can -- that the true first printing of The Sun Also Rises has the word "stoppped," with that extra p, on page 81, line 26. Instead, you will now notice amateurs and hobbyists typing titles or scanning ISBN numbers into little hand-held computers. Within seconds, they know what any particular book is selling for on the Internet. If it's underpriced, they buy it for resale. Many of them actually don't know or care anything about the books themselves. Who needs connoisseurship, who needs the experience of handling and studying and remembering details about thousands of books? Instead of the risk-taking world of scouting, so full of raffish glamor and romance, we now have data-entry.
But then, some would argue we don't even need physical books any-more. You can now read classic fiction on your cell phone. The electronic text industry keeps growing. Amazon even offers the Kindle, which emulates the look of an actual book page on its little screen. But bookmen -- and bookwomen -- love books, as McMurtry rightly insists. Why settle for an ersatz simulacrum when you can have the real thing? Yes, one can access a text with a computer, but computers don't invite the quiet sustained attention that is real reading. They are built for speed and information retrieval, not for aesthetic bliss or the gradual acquisition of wisdom and understanding. Book collecting, as Cyril Connolly once observed, is a kind of prayer.
In the fall of 1975 I drove to Washington in an old Impala, with $400 to my name and no job prospects. I was in my mid-twenties. Soon after arriving I happened to wander into Weschler's Auction House, and there discovered that among the Oriental rugs and early American paintings were a few small lots of books. One of these consisted of some attractive private press titles, including, if I remember correctly, an item from the famous Kelmscott Press of William Morris. The auction was to take place the next day, so I had time to run over to the Library of Congress and verify that this particular lot was worth at least $600 and probably a bit more.
At the bidding the next day nobody was interested in the books except me -- and one slight man with dark hair and Buddy Holly glasses. I had hoped to acquire the pretty little volumes for a pittance, but finally dropped out of the bidding at $200, afraid to risk going any higher. Besides, my opponent seemed inexorably determined to win them, however much they cost. Some kind soul in the audience later told me that I'd been up against Larry McMurtry and there was no way he was going to let me outbid him. As the man himself observes in Books: "I myself can get irrationally competitive at auctions." I can testify to that.
Michael Dirda is the author of two collections of essays, Readings and Bound to Please, the memoir An Open Book, and, most recently, Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life. In 1993 he received the Pulitzer Prize for his reviews and essays in The Washington Post Book World. Before drifting into journalism, Dirda earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Cornell University, concentrating on medieval studies and European romanticism.