Customer Reviews: Books: A Memoir
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VINE VOICEon July 2, 2008
Those of us who love books are, I think, always excited when we run across an accomplished author who shares our bibliomania and writes about it in a loving and erudite way. Larry McMurtry of Lonesome Dove and "Brokeback Mountain" (the screenplay) fame has done precisely this in his wonderful memoir Books.

Books is a memoir that traces McMurtry's life stages through his relationship with books--thousands and thousands of them, those in the library of the university he attended, those in his personal library (upwards of 30,000 volumes), those in his used and antiquarian bookstore Booked Up (300,000 and counting). Books have enriched his inner life and helped him hone his skills as an author. But they've also enriched his economic existence too, since he's been in the used book trade for nearly half a century now (something I didn't know until reading this memoir). His first book sale in 1962, for example, paid for his first son's birth.

One of the reasons I so like McMurtry's book is that it reminds me of my own life trajectory. McMurtry tells us that he was raised in an utterly bookless Texas ranch house. He never owned a book until 1942, when a guy headed off to war gave him a box of adventure stories. McMurtry was eight years old, and the minute he got the taste of the printed word in his mouth, he never looked back. I spent much of my childhood in a similarly bookless wasteland (in the south, not the southwest), and as I read McMurtry's description of his growing excitement, absorption, and sense of liberation in the magic of books once he discovered them, it was as if I was reading about myself. And, like all good books about books, this one makes me want to read books it mentions. It also makes me want read the novels of McMurtry's I haven't gotten around to yet and get myself to Texas to browse in Booked Up.

McMurtry's Books uses stories about book-collecting, book-selling, and book-enjoying as milestones for his autobiography. His memoir not only tells us something about his own life, but also shares a lot of delightful stories about fellow booksellers and bibliophiles. (My favorite is about the California-based bookseller who kept binoculars in his shop so that customers could read the titles on the top shelves.) There's a certain nostalgic melancholy in the memoir too, because one senses--and so does McMurtry--that the used bookshop is becoming quaint and endangered in our age of huge chain retailers of books.

McMurtry started out bookless, but he's gone a long way since then. He brought a huge bookstore to a town (New Archer, Texas) that he says was as utterly bookless as his childhood home, and he's brought several excellent books of his own to the rest of us. (With typical modesty, he tells us in Books that although a few of his own novels have been "really good," none are great.) Books: A Memoir is his latest gift to us all.

Five stars.
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Larry McMurtry (now age 72) has a long-established and well-honored career as an author and Hollywood screenwriter (including winning an Oscar for "Brokeback Mountain"), but for some reason it had never occurred to him that people might want to read about his joy of and for books, and collecting them. That has finally corrected with this book.

In "Books: A Memoir" (259 pages), McMurtry brings his tales of how he fell in love reading books, growing up in Archer City, TX, and how that love eventually lead to becoming a book scout, dealer and eventually book store owner, Booked Up in Georgetown, in DC, starting in the early 70s. The book is a delight to read from start to finish, bringing out his love for reading (and writing) but just as importantly collecting. In that sense, this could be applied to many other fields (as I love scouring used vinyl and CD bins for that rare album find). The book is made up of 108 chapters, which fly by mostly in a couple of pages. His memories of what it was like to scout for books in the 60s and 70s are just a delight.

McMurtry and his business partner eventually established the Booked Up store in Washington, more specifically on 31th & M in Georgetown. What memories this brings back to me. I was a grad student in Washington in the mid-80s, and remember going there, not buying much, but simply amazed at the wealth of books in the store. As McMurthy describes in the book, Booked Up left Georgetown (due primarily to rising lease expenses) and is now in his home town of Archer City, TX. Not sure that I will make it out there anytime soon. That said, "Books: A Memoir" is a fantastic read. Highly recommended!
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on November 28, 2008
McMurtry's works are erratically brilliant, sometimes downright bad, but this is a huge disappointment. Sloppy, badly in need of an editor (how many Bostwana "late" references do we need?), way too random and dropping names so frequently that we either don't know or don't care about...the whole effect is "who cares?" And I happen to love books, frequent second hand booksellers and have some familiarity with the turf described.To say nothing of being -- more times than not -- a fan of McMurtry's. But this book is hardly a memoir and, frankly, if not for the author's fame, I seriously doubt this would have ever been published. It's that big a waste of time.
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VINE VOICEon July 17, 2008
If one of the purposes of a book is to leave an impression of one kind or another, McMurtry's "Books" accomplished just that. I found this book to be a satisfying and influential read that left me curious and desiring to be a book collector. The stories are entertaining, educational, vividly portrayed, and descriptive. Like most of his books, I felt drawn into the world of which he was writing and wanted to be a part of that world.

This is a typical reaction to the writing of Larry McMurtry. Having met Mr. McMurty and experienced a conversation about books with him, I enjoyed hearing his voice in my head as he described the years of book collecting, buying and selling, and the multiple encounters with various characters. Without being preachy or philosophical, McMurtry tends to make the reader draw his own conclusions or judgments about people's actions and behavior. His objective and almost random interjections of difficulties and successes in book trading make "Books" a fascinating study in development of this admirable profession. Added to this study is a smooth prose with an eclectic and seamless blend of common and academic style--making it appropriate for all kinds of people.

I found this book to be a fascinating look at book collecting with an obvious love of books shining forth from beginning to end. Although I did find the ending to be rather anticlimactic, typical of McMurtry's style incidentally, throughout the book I found myself wanting to be there and experience similar events.

I am giving this book 4 stars due to the tendency to have too many names and events that didn't always add to the overall direction of the book. Overall, a worthwhile reading experience and I have yet to be disappointed with a McMurtry book.
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on July 28, 2008
I learned a lot of interesting things from this book about the bookselling business. If you want a quick, intelligent read for summer, this would work. And Chapter 29, about the adventures of C. Dorman David, is worth the price of the book.

But as I neared the end of the book, I realized that there wasn't that much about the average reader who looks for particular books to read and treasure. For example, Ludwig Lewisohn's 1932 book Expression in America talks about forgotten classics like George Frederic Hummel's Subsoil and Ruth Suckow's The Odyssey of a Nice Girl. I happily discovered both of those books at the big John King bookstore in downtown Detroit.

There's nothing in McMurtry's book about bookstore visitors like me. He seems to be most interested in wealthy bookowners who buy books as much for show as for reading pleasure. For a book about the enthusiastic everyday reader, I'd recommend Christopher Morley's two classics, Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop.
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I regret to report that this is a mediocre book. And, with the exceedingly sparse printing per page, it also borders on a publishing rip-off. It purports to be a memoir of McMurtry's life with books -- both reading books and buying and selling books as a second-hand book dealer. But there is much more of the latter than the former. Weird bibliophile that I am, I happen to like good memoirs of rare and second-hand booksellers, but I don't think most people do, and this one does not really qualify as "good".

Perhaps McMurtry had promised himself or a publisher that some day he would write such a memoir, but when he finally got around to doing it, he no longer had the requisite energy. In any event, BOOKS: A MEMOIR seems to be the product of, at best, a half-hearted effort. (McMurtry's recent articles in "The New York Review of Books" show more time and effort than this book.)

To elaborate on the publishing rip-off: the book consists of 109 very short chapters, each of which begins one-third of the way down an odd-numbered page, regardless where the previous chapter had ended. Thus, there are many completely blank pages as well as many other pages with at best a third of a page of text. Although there are 259 numbered pages in the book, there are less than 160 pages of actual text. At $24.00 retail, that is pretty niggardly.

I can't imagine BOOKS: A MEMOIR appealing to anyone other than a Larry McMurtry completist or groupie. (Are there any such folks? Maybe so, to judge from some of the other reviews). Even for those, like me, afflicted with bibliomania, it is disappointing. It pales in comparison to McMurtry's earlier memoir, "Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen." I rather doubt that BOOKS will be a much prized or sought-for item in whatever second-hand book stores there are fifty years hence.
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on July 13, 2008
I love almost all of McMurtry's work as well as books about books, so I was eagerly anticipating loving this book. It was a smooth and somewhat entertaining read, but I have to admit feeling a little let down.

It is not a memoir in almost any sense of the word, but more of a collection of war stories about the buying and selling of books. There was some autobiographical material in the book, but not enough to satisfy me. The book seemed to peter out near the end and ended a little abruptly for me. The final chapter almost seemed like an after-thought.

Still, McMurtry is an accomplished author and I'd probably read his grocery list if he published it. It was an enjoyable read that left me vaguely dissatisfied.
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on October 10, 2011
Disclaimer: I had my own secondhand book shop a few blocks from McMurtry's in the 1980's before moving it to Bethesda, and he used to buy from me on a fairly regular basis. Within the Washington used book trade, nobody had a better reputation than Larry when it came to supporting fellow booksellers. He was never talkative, but he was a very good listener who never once pulled rank on us lesser lights. He's both a mensch and a gentleman, and nothing below should be taken as signifying anything to the contrary.

That said, my take on "Books" is the opposite of many of the reviews here. While others have complained of too much "name dropping" when it comes to McMurtry's descriptions of the antiquarian book world, I would much rather have seen him describe in much more detail some of the outsized personalities he's encountered in his bookselling career. The fact that characters such as Hal Webber, Peter Howard, and John Jenkins aren't known to the world outside the book trade doesn't mean that a writer as skillful as Larry McMurtry couldn't have brought them to life for the general reader without exaggerating their traits one iota. In truth, if it weren't for his understandably human protective instincts and his obvious distaste for "gossip", he could have easily written a bookselling memoir that could have done for the antiquarian book world what "The Hustler" did (albeit in fiction) for the world of pool. It's not as if his open ears and anthropological eyes haven't given him a wealth of material to draw upon, and it's a shame that for the most part he's chosen to let his discretion override his instinctive love of storytelling. This could have been a great book, but instead it was like going to one of those restaurants that serve you a four ounce steak and try to pass it off as a meal.
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on July 30, 2008
I came to know McMurtry as many did through his excellent novel Lonesome Dove: A Novel (Simon & Schuster Classics). Then I learned I already knew him through the many screenplays and novels he has written that became major motion pictures: Hud,The Last Picture Show (Definitive Director's Cut Special Edition),Terms of Endearment to name a few. I have since read most of what he has written. I heard he owned an eclectic used antique book store filled with many hard to find books many collector items, his novel Cadillac Jack : A Novel was about an antique book scout. So I was interested to read this memoir of McMurtry's life as a bookman. I use the term Bookman because you don't have to be a writer to be a bookman. McMurtry's simple mastery of the language is again on display as he takes on his journey of becoming a book scout and collector. The characters he meets and the places he travels are brought vividly to life. He ends up opening used book stores that carry rare and collectable editions, the eclectic of which is the one he opens in his home town of Archer City Texas (also the setting for the last Picture show, and subsequent sequels). McMurtry gives the reader an adventurous and some time comic look into the world of those who collect and covet rare books, a world inhabited by some strange birds! What I enjoyed most about this book, however, was the insight into how the many books he has read has formed his literary outlook and influenced his writings ( I have more than I few new books on my to be read list after finishing this book). This is a book I will read more than once.
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on July 22, 2015
I was very much enthralled by this memoir. I noticed several reviews were obnoxiously critical of McMurtry's name dropping. I saw this as no infraction whatsoever of Larry's personality but a intriguing revelation of His obsession with books and reading. what else would we expect from a memoir of one of America's most prolific and gifted writers!!
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