Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Larry McMurtry's 'Books': rambling, disorganized, dull

The 'Lonesome Dove' author leads us through a disappointing tour of his life as a bookseller

Sunday, July 06, 2008

In his new memoir "Books" — an account of his more than 50-year career as a "bookman" — Larry McMurtry states that "the antiquarian book trade is an anecdotal culture." To wit, I start thusly: In my 20s, I spent a summer working for an antiquarian book-seller. It was a prestigious place, just off Boston's posh Newbury Street, run by a married pair of blue-blood WASPs who hired their interns from Harvard and — in those pre-Internet times — researched the provenance of any book they didn't have immediate knowledge of by going down to the Boston Athenaeum, a members-only library dating back to 1807.

When I wasn't photocopying pages from yellowing Christie's auction catalogs to send to prospective clients, I was massaging conditioner into the cracked spines of old leatherbound books or carefully pulling a book from a high shelf for a customer to peruse while wearing the white gloves we provided for just such a purpose.

It was a heady experience for a book lover. The highlight of my time there was the day Umberto Eco, author of "The Name of the Rose," walked into the store, announcing, "I am Umberto Eco!" to no one in particular.

Of course, any sales job requires a propensity for fabrication, exaggeration and distraction. The owners of the store boasted that they were the dealer of record for the private library of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science Church, which was true. What they were less likely to mention was that the majority of the company's profit was made trading in Victorian erotica, much of it slip-cased in purple velvet, and providing throwaway books (Thomas Hardy was a favorite) to interior designers who would have the leather covers dyed to match the d├ęcor of a client's house.

Yes, there once was a time when antiquarian bookselling was a trade practiced by wizened men and women with vast repositories of rare knowledge and a list of people in their head eager to pay hefty sums for hard-to-find volumes.

Now, the Internet has rendered much of the mystery of antiquarian bookselling — the specifics of buying and pricing — an open secret, and the barrier to entry is low enough and knowledge of the value of books so general that nearly anyone who wants to get into the game can. There are still high-end dealers such as Glenn Horowitz, who has brokered recent acquisitions at the University of Texas' Ransom Center and Texas State University's Southwestern Writers Center, but if you want something less exclusive, all you need to do is log onto eBay or drive over to the Half-Price Books on North Lamar Boulevard.

These thoughts and memories came to mind when I picked up "Books." Like myself, McMurtry was introduced to antiquarian books when he was a student, albeit one at Rice University in the late 1950s. And while my experience as a "bookman" was brief, McMurtry has lived a dual life as book dealer and writer for nearly six decades.

The first book he acquired for his personal library was a "lovely two-volume nineteenth-century 'Anatomy of Melancholy,' in calf with morocco labels," for which, he dutifully reports, he paid $7.50 to Ted Brown, owner of Brown's Book Shop. That book formed the foundation of a personal library that now amounts to some 28,000 volumes — about the same number of books contained in a typical Barnes & Noble; it's merely a fraction of the 300,000 books he has on offer at Booked Up, his bookstore in Archer City, near Wichita Falls.

"Books: A Memoir" is what McMurtry describes as "a hasty account of my life in books" and amounts to a paean to the accumulation of those volumes. It offers sometimes detailed, sometimes vague and, yes, sometimes hasty recollections about the acquisition of everything from individual volumes to entire libraries — most of them from long-gone book dealers of yesteryear.

Like many of the bookshops it describes, it is rambling and disorganized. It is also inexcusably dull.

Here's a writer who in his long life has accumulated anecdotes in the same way he accumulates books — did you know that Thomas Pynchon lived near the Houston Ship Channel in the 1960s? — yet hasn't bothered to shape them into a narrative. He merely rambles like an old man on a porch swing with an endless supply of lemonade to keep him lubricated and lugubrious.

One random five-page stretch (pages 93-98) finds him ranging from Houston, where he worked in a now defunct store called The Bookman; to the story of how he got his first literary agent, Dorothea Oppenheimer; to the auction of the Washington, D.C., bookstore Lowdermilks; to the opening of Booked Up in Washington, D.C.; to a discussion of the impact of real estate prices on bookstores and why he moved Booked Up to Texas. All this, with a reference to writing the script for "The Last Picture Show" sandwiched in between.

"The writer who should have written a masterwork about the second-hand book trade was Anton Chekhov, the genius of small frustrations and little failures," McMurtry writes. It's an apt observation — Chekhov, primarily a short story writer, was a master of the wedding of compression and gravitas that the subject calls for. McMurtry, who has written just one short story in his entire life ("There Will Be Peace in Korea," published in the Texas Quarterly in 1964), simply isn't up to the task. He tries — this book's 259 pages are divided into 109 chapters — but the attempt comes across as, at best, episodic, and at worst, batty.

Part of the problem is that McMurtry has already written at some length about reading and bookselling elsewhere, especially in his highly regarded essay collection "Walter Benjamin and the Dairy Queen" — a fact he readily acknowledges. Sadly, "Books" is also consistent with his recent nonfiction books "The Colonel and Little Missie" and "Oh, What a Slaughter," much of which read as if he's cleared out his old filing cabinets and been given carte blanche by Simon & Schuster to publish what he finds there.

If you're really interested in McMurtry's books — that is, the ones he owns, not the ones he writes — you'd be better off making the pilgrimage to Booked Up, where you can see them for yourself. There's no substitute for shopping in a well-stocked antiquarian bookstore. The employees will, doubtless, be able to recommend a book to hold your interest this summer, even if this particular book isn't it. But take that trip now; if the litany of defunct bookstores that litters these pages is any indication, time is of the essence.

Texas writer Edward Nawotka covers the South for Publishers Weekly and is a nationally syndicated book critic.

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