Arts/Literature

Why reading isn't fun—Review: Books by Larry McMurtry

It takes him ninety-one pages, but Larry McMurty finally articulates the problem that plagues his newest memoir, Books.

“Here I am, thirty-four chapters into a book that I hope will interest the general or common reader,” he writes, “and 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? How many are going to care that I visited the great Seven Gables Bookshop, or dealt with the wily L.A. dealer Max Hunley, whose little store at the corner of Rodeo Drive and Little Santa Monica in Beverly Hills is now a yogurt shop?”

McMurtry’s rhetorical question seems to lift a millstone from around his neck, because the memoir gets more readable as the book goes on. But to enjoy the lightened load, a reader has to make it to page ninety-one in the first place—which looks deceptively easy given the cavalcade of short chapters. (Page ninety-one is, indeed, the first page of chapter thirty-four.) Books with such short chapters typically fly by.

And McMurty’s clear, easy style, written in north Texas straight-talk prose, is easy to fly through. His first chapter, a quaintly spun tale about the lack of books in his childhood home, feels like an invitation to pull up a chair and sit a spell while one of America’s preeminent novelists and screenwriters tells you all about the impact and import of books over his lifetime. Any booklover would be hard-pressed to resist such an invitation.

After all, McMurtry won the Pulitzer for Lonesome Dove. He won an Academy Award for screenwriting for Brokeback Mountain. He’s written twenty-eight novels, two essay collections, three memoirs, and over thirty screenplays. He contributes regularly to The New York Times Review of Books. Surely he has something worthwhile to say about books, right?

Right?

The trap sprung, McMurty beings to wax not-quite-eloquently about the many bookshops he has haunted in his lifetime, first as a college student, later as a professor, and eventually as a professional used book buy and seller. The chapters, which frequently begin one place and, in the span of a page and a half, frequently drop off someplace else entirely, turning into litanies of “I did this” and “I remember that” with no real insight into any of it. He drops names, drops book-buyer jargon (“Americanists,” “Morocco binding,” etc.), and ultimately drops his readers.

McMurtry also tends to use his writing as a way to remember, and if he can’t remember, he doesn’t bother to write around the subject—thereby omitting it as a way to avoid confusing—nor does he bother to go look anything up. For instance, referring to a particular book about movie serials, he says, “There may now be a companion volume…but I haven’t seen it.”

Look it up, Larry. It would be easy enough to do.

Perhaps McMurtry intended such reminiscences to preserve his informal storytelling voice, but instead they just make him look lazy.

So, by page ninety-one, I was barely hanging on. Then McMurtry posed his rhetorical question: Why should readers care?

My answer: We don’t.

McMurtry seemed to anticipate the response. “A fair answer would be that few readers are engaged by this kind of stuff, unless the writer can somehow tap deeper sentiments,” he admits. He goes on to offer examples of other writers who’ve successfully tapped into those deeper sentiments—yet he fails to do so himself.

Not long after that, though, McMurtry begins to hit his stride, and the book congeals into an interesting curiosity filled with anecdotes about his dealings with quirky clients. Each real-life episode has a clear beginning, middles, and end, unlike many of McMurtry’s early chapters, and the clearer sense of direction helps shore up the book.

The other thing that helps McMurtry’s memoir is his clear love of books as physical artifacts. “A bookman’s love of books is a love of books, not merely of the information in them,” he writes. At times, his adulation gets tedious because no one but a bookman would know what he’s talking about—and McMurtry doesn’t succeed in translating his passion into language for the lay reader—but even through the tedium a reader has to appreciate McMurtry’s deep love of his subject matter.

By the end of Books, McMurtry poses some profoundly important questions about not only his trade but about reading as a whole. “How did one of the pillars of civilization come, in only fifty years, to be mostly unwanted?” he asks. He admits he has no satisfactory answers, although he does offer a few anecdotes. Like most of the anecdotes in the book, though, McMurtry doesn’t bother to present them in tidy, the-moral-of-the-story fashion, which leads to mixed results.

McMurtry doesn’t even bother to tie up the book with anything close to a neat, tidy concluding chapter. “As workers in an ancient trade,” he writes, “we feel…part of all that we have met.” He goes on to randomly list a bunch of bookshops he’s done business with and the collections they’ve purchased from those shops. And then the book ends.

Make sense of it what you will: the list; the names; the jargon; the anecdotes resolved and unresolved; the books, books, books. McMurtry’s Books offers readers plenty to mull over—assuming anyone can make it all the way through.

6 replies »

  1. Y’know, the WordsDay banner is so nice, but why is it so small? Is it because no one ever figured out all the authors on it?

    As a bibliophile (distinct from a bibliophiliac), I’m just now getting into all the technical aspects of the books I buy and enjoy, aside from the perennial “hardcover vs. paperback” debate.

  2. The physical artifact is as holy as the thoughts which it contains…but take that with a grain of salt if you want, as it comes from someone who grew up visiting the printing company that his mother works for and later put in some time in multiple departments. I still hold single pages up to the light in bookstores to check back up and thumb the spine looking for air bubbles in the glue. And if i have a decent ruler handy i’ll check gutter margins and the like.

    Saying, “Well, i made 30,000 books today is balm for the bibliophile’s soul.” Chuckling for a whole shift imagining the collegiate hell you’re invoking by bringing The Anatomy and Physiology Coloring Book to market isn’t too bad either.

  3. Sounds like, with friends like McMurtry, books don’t need any more enemies.

    No one reads more books than me (except Chris Mackowski). But bibliophilia is just too anal for me.

  4. “bringing The Anatomy and Physiology Coloring Book to market …”

    That was my favorite coloring book as a child! The detail was so absorbing, and all the Latin and Greek words were like a code to crack. I didn’t care for coloring books in general, but this one provided the little me dozens of hours of relaxation and puzzle-solving. Gosh, haven’t thought of that book in years.

  5. An old book that fascinated me was one my grandmother passed down to me when I was about 12 — a medical book on World War I injuries with photos of the soldiers prior to treatment.