A bookman is a person who lives for, by, and with books. Not simply a bookseller, a bookman (or bookperson) is someone for whom books are a governing metaphor, providing not only financial but also social and intellectual support. It would seem that with the advent of online bookselling, the physical bookstore, particularly the secondhand and antiquarian bookstore, may be a thing of the past, but in this memoir Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove (1985) and Terms of Endearment (1975), among many others, in a ramble through his life as a bookman, lovingly and somewhat dryly illuminates his love of books and how his life has been shaped by them and the people who buy and sell them.
McMurtry has had a dual career: novelist/essayist and bookman. For many years he has operated Booked Up, first in Washington, D.C., and more recently in his hometown Archer City, Texas (the prototype for the fictional Thalia in McMurtry’s 1966 novel The Last Picture Show). This Booked Up is a massive bibliographic enterprise, sprawling over four separate locations (including a former automobile showroom) in the small north-central Texas town.
Books: A Memoir is as much a memoir of books as it is of McMurtry, and it begins with a description of a box of nineteen books, adolescent literature given to McMurtry as a child by an older relative. McMurtry writes that the books “changed my life.” These books are the genesis of both McMurtry’s intellectual life and the memoir itself, launching the book on its seriatim evocation of important books and bookpeople that have influenced McMurtry’s life.
McMurtry’s first book, from the box of nineteen, is Sergeant Silk, The Prairie Scout (1929). Few people (except book lovers) can remember the first book that they ever read. It is significant that McMurtry can, and he chronicles how this early collection set him on his diverse reading and acquisition journey.
McMurtry’s journey is not without its stumbles. He tells of books that he sold for a relatively small amount of money that soon after realized a much higher price. “Les Jeux de la poupée, the famous tortured-doll book by the Belgian surrealist Hans Bellmer, ” was sold by McMurtry for $45, then sold by another for $120, and later was on sale for $5,000. Another time, a bookstore McMurtry managed acquires valuable historical letters that are likely stolen.
The writer regales the reader with stories of the bookpeople he has known through the years: Dorman David (the acquirer of the shady letters), “who seemed to simply attract good things” (but was a poor businessperson and eventually left the country to avoid bankruptcy); David’s mother (and McMurtry’s early employer), Grace, a charming woman who had nineteen telephones in her home; Gershon Legman, mysterious scholar of erotica who hid his library of books, in a French Templar monastery, from McMurtry. While the personalities are not always eccentric or offbeat, McMurtry shows them respect.
Perhaps some of the best stories involve the bookshops, dozens of which McMurtry mentions in passing: Lowdermilk’s in Washington, D.C., the auction of whose books started the original institution of McMurtry’s D.C. store; an unnamed bookshop whose proprietor slept in the store; another bookstore run by “a nice retired CIA man.” The stores are clearly characters in their own right, places that live and evolve with the acquisition and sale of libraries, stocks of other bookstores waning with the passage of time, the death of the booksellers, and the advent of online bookselling. McMurtry portrays the bookstores as organic, evolving entities. In many ways these moments in the memoirin which McMurtry notes the passing of a long-lived or memorable bookstore or booksellerbecome an elegy for a way of work and life now lost. These anecdotes are augmented by ones about the people who own and work in the stores and the varied customers who enter, with their diverse requests and reasons for seeking a particular book.
The storiessmall, intimate portraits of transactions with like-minded bookpeopleare perhaps not significant in themselves but in aggregate are quite telling. It is in the compilation that the memoir gains its force, the accretion of one story after another and one book after another. By the middle of the book the reader begins to share McMurtry’s quiet excitement over a good find, a good deal on a book, an interesting collector or bookseller. It is a quiet enthusiasm, but nonetheless a seductive one.
Even so, this memoir does not follow a traditional linear structure, though the book does (generally) begin with McMurtry’s childhood and end with a list of the bookstores McMurtry dealt with that are now shadows of their former selves or gone altogether. This is an easy, but not typical, book to read. The chapters are quite short (109 chapters in a book less than 260 pages long), making the memoir much more a series of vignettes than a continuous narrative. This might be a problem for a reader expecting extended commentary on a particular book or character. (As McMurtry writes, “Here I am thirty-four chapters into a book that I hope will interest the general or common readerand yet why should these readers be interested in the fact that in 1958 or so I paid Ted Brown $7.50 for a nice copy of The Anatomy of Melancholy?”)
Books: A Memoir is essentially a ramble, a saunter, a serendipitous walk through McMurtry’s long experience with books. For example, the sixth chapterless than two pages longstarts with a discussion of how McMurtry’s childhood isolation on a ranch shaped his reading, then mentions the Republic Pictures serials (with footnotes on books about them), and ends with a reflection on the persistence of the Yellow Peril fears of the early twentieth century. In addition, in chapter 5 the reader finds out why it is necessary to discover that McMurtry took Katherine Drew’s history class at Rice University (because, as he notes, McMurtry was helped in learning history by having read the World Book encyclopedia as a child).
As a result, the book is quite informal, with a slightly desultory and laconic style, as if the chapters were preliminary notes for a more ambitious project or perhaps for a long essay rather than for a book-length study. Some chapters could be transcripts for a speech. To judge the book on this element alone, however, would not be completely fair. Indeed, this reads like a meandering walk through a large and diverse bookstore, where one finds by surprise books on one topic shelved with books on completely different topics (The Web site for McMurtry’s bookstore asserts that the books are arranged “whimsically”). This memoir, then, provides an effective metaphor for McMurtry’s life, engaging for readers who understand books not only as repositories of stories and information but also as mileposts of an individual’s intellectual progress and of a culture’s social and moral development. While this is no Education of Henry Adams (1918) in scope, it can certainly be said to be an “education of Larry McMurtry” and the beginning of an education for a booklover as well.
Booklist 104, nos. 19/20 (June 1, 2008): 28.
The Christian Science Monitor, July 8, 2008, p. 13.
Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 10 (May 15, 2008): 58.
Library Journal 133, no. 13 (August 15, 2008): 84.
The New York Review of Books 55, no. 13 (August 14, 2008): 54-56.
The New York Times Book Review, September 14, 2008, p. 31.
Publishers Weekly 255, no. 21 (May 26, 2008): 54.
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