September 2008

Chelsey Philpot

nonfiction

Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry

A book-lover measures his or her life by books. We fondly remember the giants of childhood: Charlotte’s Web, Anne of Green Gables, and The Giver. We recall with some embarrassment the serial fiction that brought us through adolescence. And finally in adulthood, books hold both memories and new ideas: we reread the old and discover the new. In his erudite and beautiful volume, Books: A Memoir, the prolific Larry McMurtry writes about his life as a bookseller with the understanding that personal bibliography is autobiography.

McMurtry grew up in a ranch house without books. Now he operates a bookstore, Booked Up, in his hometown of Archer City, Texas and his personal library contains twenty-eight thousand volumes. This author and Academy Award-winning screenwriter’s story, from book-starved to book-saturated, will fascinate bibliophiles even if it does not win-over a broad audience.

Books: A Memoir is filled with stories of famous booksellers and anecdotes about wealthy library owners. McMurtry namedrops -- both authors and society folks -- but his years in the business of buying and selling private libraries and face-to-face encounters with quirky customers give his stories importance that they would not have if he were in any other trade. His encounter with Alice Roosevelt Longfellow, the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, who “had been something of a social terror in Washington for seven or eight decades,” and his description of holding first editions will mean something even to readers who are ignorant about social legends and obscure travel writing. McMurtry’s stories make you smile, but they also make you want to know more about the man behind the counter, McMurtry himself.

When McMurtry departs from recounting anecdotes, readers will find his striking talent as a writer. Musing about the rise of technology and the future of reading, McMurtry writes, “The complex truth is that many activities last for centuries, and then simply (or unsimply) stop… In commerce extinctions happen often. It didn’t take electricity long to kill off the kerosene lamp.” His matter-of-factness is both depressing and refreshing; if the Kindle replaces the book it will not be without historical precedent.

McMurtry ends by listing the bookstores and dealers he has bought from over the years. His final chapter and his book in its entirety will make you think again before ordering books over the Internet: it may be convenient, but nothing replaces the dusty smell of an old shop and the crackle of worn pages as they are being turned.

Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 1416583343
272 Pages