Friday, April 19, 2013

Books: A Paper Love Affair

Larry McMurtry has done many things in his life but perhaps none is as impressive as turning Archer City, Texas -a lonesome patch of Texas prairie- into one of the world’s great book towns.  And in his suitably titled Books we learn all about this labor of love as we’re granted a rare and fascinating look into the world of book collecting and book dealing.

As the bestselling author of more than 30 novels (including the 1985 Pulitzer prize winning Lonesome Dove), over a dozen works of non-fiction, and Oscar Award-winning screenplays like Terms of Endearment and The Last Picture Show, he's contributed his share to the American literary canon.  And as one of the last true book scouts and purveyors of rare and antiquated books, he’s been involved in the book trade in one way or another for the past seven decades.  That experience and longevity has yielded some fascinating stories and insight which he chronicles in his plain and engaging prose as only someone with his skill-set and résumé can.

From McMurtry’s humble farm beginnings, to his days as a book scout, to his first bookshop in Washington D.C., to the international auction circuit and beyond, the pages are peppered with larger-than-life characters and book hoarding eccentrics.  Things eventually come full circle as he returns home to Archer City; the place where his love affair began as a book-obsessed youth hoarding a ragged stash of 19 books (a sum that has since blossomed into more than 300,000 volumes).  And the endearing narrative thread throughout is that McMurtry has remained that West Texas boy for whom the written word is the “cheapest and most stable pleasure of life.”  Operating in a world that prizes books as commodities rather than art, he has never lost that perspective.

Books is written in typical McMurtry fashion with his rapid-fire burst of one and two page chapters and non-pretentious style succinctly detailing action and ideas with economy.  He seems to have an anecdote for every occasion and for a man who was on the fringe of the beat generation, palled-around with Ken Kesey (and reportedly married his widow), and has rubbed elbows with just about everyone from aristocrats to Hollywood folk, it’s not all that surprising.  And these tidbits are augmented with interesting revelations such as the struggle between his inner-writer and inner-reader and the resulting friction, which he concludes, is a benefit to both his passions. 

But more than just documenting the amazing life of a bibliophile and recounting some fascinating stories about books, there is a timeless quality and an obvious preservational importance to Books.  It’s been labeled a “memoir”, but it’s not really.  McMurtry is not the memoir type. It’s more like a postcard for posterity, a chronicling of the dying art of book dealing for future generations.  And with the rise of the Internet and EBay this world seems to vanish a little more each day.  That’s why Books is not only an interesting book, but an important one.  And it would be hard to find a more apt chronicler for the task.