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A book for book lovers written by a book lover
on 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.