Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Books: A Memoir - Larry McMurtry

No, a bookshelf didn't fall over on me and crush me in an avalanche of hardback volumes. I'm still here, but come to think of it, that wouldn't exactly be a terrible way to go.

My feeble excuse is writer's block. I've given notice at my current job, and I must write my resume and let the jobhunt begin in earnest. And therein lies the block. The laugh's on me -- I want to venture more into teaching writing, but I freeze up at a simple little task like a resume. Something's got to crack this frozen sea within me and soon. On the bright side, I'll have more empathy for any future students who have difficulty writing.

Meanwhile, blogging's not going any better, but enough's enough. I'll share the notes I took while reading Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry.

This book is not without flaws. It is really short, and for the amount of money the publisher charged for this book, it's a crying shame and a shameful crime that there are so many blank pages within. Also, it's written in a fragmented and splintery style that reads like a first or second draft. I'm so concerned that this slight offering is proof that McMurtry's general health as well as his literary powers are in decline.

Having said all of that, I love Books: A Memoir. When I finished it, I was hungry for more anecdotes about Larry McMurtry's life as a book collector and reader.

Larry McMurtry was born in Archer City, Texas in 1936 into what he called a "bookless" house. When his older cousin went off to WWII, he first dropped by the McMurtry ranch with a box of his boyhood books --19 adventure stories -- for young Larry, and a lifelong love affair with books was born. This box of books is McMurtry's madeline, and he refers to this gift numerous times in Books: A Memoir. "Very quickly," he writes, "once I had my 19 books, I realized that reading was probably the cheapest and most stable pleasure of life." He also comments, when discussing the boom of technological gadgets in the past few years, "I nowadays have the feeling that not only are most bookmen eccentrics, but even the act they support --reading -- is itself an eccentricity now, if a mild one."

Second only to reading, McMurtry loves being a "bookman" -- hunting and gathering and selling books. He turned to that rather than to being a writer-in-residence at some prestigious university because handling and hauling books was physical labor which felt more like real work, given his family's background as cowboys and ranchers.

McMurtry admits that he is an anomaly among bookmen (which includes women). "Many bookmen, and some of the best among them rarely, if ever, read. The acquire and they estimate and they sell; they collate, measure, hype. They read catalogues, they look in bibliographies, they submit quotes. But they don't have time to read."

In all of his years as a bookman, McMurtry has come across some interesting book collections. I was startled then charmed at how specialized (not to mention bizarre!) book collections can be. Here are some of those included in this book: Several hundred books about Byzantine coinage; a library consisting of hundreds of copies of The Great Gatsby; books by H.G. Wells; novels that poets wrote; and American erotica of the Depression era. After reading this, I wanted a weird collection of my own; I was irked that my own shelves lacked any real signs of eccentricity. After comforting myself that my Korea books and Don Robertson novels are a small start in that direction, I began to wonder if any other bloggers have strange collections. I'd love it if you 'fessed up. Now.

In McMurtry's personal collection of 28,000 books (Dear Mr. McMurtry, Can I come over?...) his own "odd shelf" (as Anne Fadiman called it in Ex Libris) consists of books written by women travelers that dates back a century or two. (He calls this collection his "lady travelers". First "bookmen" and now this, but I can't help but admire him for refusing to even acknowledge that thorny thicket known as PC.) I got excited at this revelation, wondering if he has Josie Dew's books. (Among others, she wrote The Sun In My Eyes, a recounting of her bicycling adventures across Asia.)

It was also fun to read about McMurtry's reading streaks. Back in the early 70s, he read The Guns of August and Nicholas & Alexandra around the same time and got hooked on reading about World War I. After a few years, he moved on to WWII, but he's still "much more engrossed by WWI."

A darker streak, and one that renewed my worries about his health was when McMurtry mentioned that he "recently got depressed for 1.5 years and could only read a minor literary figure named James Lees-Milne who wrote several books including 12 volumes of diaries 1942-1997" which McMurtry "became dependent upon during my depression." He has read all 12 volumes several times and is sure he'll "keep rereading them for the rest of my life." Of his love for rereading, McMurtry writes, "If I once read for adventure, I now read for security."

I visited McMurtry's Book Town in Archer City several years ago, so when he writes about it in the final pages, I could more fully appreciate what I noticed with pleasure when I was there -- his scrupulous attention to what is on his shelves: "One essential practice is the purge. Junk inevitably seeps in, and the iron rule is that good books do not pull bad books up: bad books pull good books down." I laughed out loud when he referred to a customer's habit of always poking through piles of books stacked on the floor as "the midden instinct".
I want to return to Archer City so bad. Some of my sweetest dreams have Book Town as their backdrop.

Although there is much that is enjoyable about Books: A Memoir, because it is a little on the skimpy side, I wouldn't recommend buying it unless you're a true McMurtry fan or you have an "odd shelf" for books about books. However, you should run, not walk to your nearest library and check it out or put yourself on the reserve list.


Anonymous said...

yea! Bybee has a post! and it is quite interesting. I have never been a re-reader, except accidently (Atonement) but I am starting to think about books I want to read again. Is this a sign I'm getting old or depressed?

Want to send me your resume and I'll send you mine and we can red-pen critique each other? just a thought...

Bookfool said...

Well, that was worth waiting for.

I don't think I have any weird collections, but I do collect certain authors. Paul Watkins, for example -- I've collected almost everything he's ever written (just found out I missed a book), simply because his memoir is one of my all-time favorites. And, it turned out I don't really like his fiction all that much, but I still have to keep up the collection.

Now and then, I grab an older book from the library sale, just for the cute covers. I like old dust jackets.

And, I have quite a collection of Bibles because King James sometimes baffles me. Originally, I just wanted a parallel Bible to compare versions, but I eventually became completely carried away. I just donated a few; I had too many.

Oh, wait! I used to collect nonfiction on *anything* because I thought I was going to be an author when I grew up and you just never know when you're going to need a book about guns, pottery, rock climbing, cacti and succulents, scuba diving, whatever . . . for research, of course. That might be really weird. Is it?

Anonymous said...

Don't be silly. My books are a perfectly normal collection. Unlike Bookfool. ;)

If the Hayward Quake ever goes, I'm going to be buried alive by hardback books.

Good luck on the job hunt!

myza said...

Before I moved to Turkey, I went to a used bookstore back in my hometown with my mother. I had no intentions to buy any books because I was moving and had no where to put them. But then I saw a great deal that I couldn't resist.... 10 hardcover Larry McMurty books for $15....

Now I have added a huge stack of books to the already huge stack of books back in Canada that have not yet been read.

raych said...

Man, crushed by a bookshelf is TOtally how I want to go. But not for, like, 70 more years. And then I want to be BURied with all my books. No, I want them passed on. Ok, maybe one or two clutched in my cold, dead hands.

My grandkinds are going to hate this.

Anonymous said...

My odd shelf contains numerous copies of Jonathan Carroll's books. I have two, and in one case, three copies of several of his novels because when I see one in a used book store I must buy it. Even if I already have two copies, I MUST buy it. Really weird.

Susan said...

Oh, I missed you! Good luck with the job hunt, Bybee, really, and good luck with the nerves too. It's hard changing jobs, even if exciting, but I think you would be great at teaching books! I haven't read any Larry McMurty yet *hangs head* I keep meaning too, but I saw parts of Lonesome Dove and the book is so big.....*hangs head even lower and shuffles feet* mumbles "I'm tired of westerns anyway" and shuffles off to read Jane Austen :-)
But your review makes me want to might, possibly, one day, try McMurty!!

Susan said...

PS Odd book collections...I collect books on dreams and dream analysis (this is why I'm having so much fun with your dreams!), but they have to be good analysis, not by rote which are stupid and miss the point; astrology - for years and years; I have a middling collection, but not everything that has been published (not yet anyway)....that's all I can think of so far...good question, Bybee! :-)

Lisa said...

I picked this up at the library a couple weeks ago and haven't gotten around to it. I'll put it in a more accessible place now, it sounds right up my alley.

I don't think I have an odd book shelf.

Anonymous said...

LOved your review...
I'm hoping you can answer my you remember the title of a book that McMurtry mentioned...he said he would give it to his daughter if he had one or that it should be required reading for all young women?
Please help,
thank you,

Anonymous said...

can I lure you to Dubai? They really need English teachers here...