Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry

Larry McMurtry has written at least 40 books, mostly novels, but he apparently prefers reading, buying and selling books more than writing them. While writing all of those books and reading many more, he became an antiquarian or secondhand bookseller. He currently operates a giant bookstore in Archer City, Texas, that holds roughly 300,000 volumes.

There is apparently a difference between running a used or secondhand bookstore and running an antiquarian one. At one point, McMurtry refers to a “low-end” book as one costing less than $500. He is primarily interested in locating (“scouting”), buying and selling the ones that aren’t low-end (e.g. $50,000 for a first edition of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom).

Books tells the story of McMurtry’s life with books (and magazines too). But it is a strangely written book. 

The chapters are almost all one or two pages long. He rambles. He frequently refers to buying this or that book from this or that bookseller while occasionally noting that not many people will want to read a book about buying books: “I’m aware that this kind of prattle is exactly the kind of prattle I ought to be avoiding, lest this become a narrative that is of interest only to bookmen”. 

And 50 pages later: “Here I am, thirty-four chapters into a book that I hope will interest the general or common reader — and yet why should these readers be interested in the the fact that in 1958 or so I paid Ted Brown $7.50 for a nice copy of The Anatomy of Melancholy?”

I kept reading, because he is such a good writer and there are enough interesting stories and observations in the book to make it worthwhile. 

This is my favorite anecdote. McMurtry came upon an English edition of Moby Dick that had belonged to an English author named Charles Reade. Mr. Reade once had an assignment to edit Moby Dick for English readers, making it shorter and easier to sell. The copy that McMurtry found had proposed edits written in it: “Charles Reade was not a man to be intimidated by a mere American classic. He began his editorial work by drawing a bold line through ‘Call me Ishmael'”.

Aside from so many references to books and authors I’ve never heard of, the most striking thing in Books is its account of McMurtry’s amazing productivity. He casually mentions that he has read a certain 12-volume set of diaries several times, in addition to reading apparently vast numbers of other books, many more than once. He did this while writing his own 50 or so books and screenplays. While traveling around the country looking for books to buy and owning and operating his own store.

It’s true that he has had a partner in the book business. But I don’t understand how one person could do all of this. It’s like a story from another age. Maybe he skips a lot of pages when he reads? And never sleeps or takes a shower?  (7/28/12)

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