Thursday, November 24, 2011

Books: A Memoir

I just finished a book called Books: A Memoir, that I bought last spring at The Strand in New York City...a book about books, actually. The author is superfamous but not well-known—Larry McMurtry. He's written nearly thirty books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove. He also co-authored Brokeback Mountain, for which he received an Oscar. But that's not what the book is about.

The book is about McMurtry's lifelong obsession with books, starting from his childhood. His parents never read to him and for a while, he was confused that stories could actually be made up. He had a hard time grasping the concepts of fantasy, story, and invention until his cousin gave him a gift that changed his life—a box of nineteen books.

That gift quickly made McMurtry realize that reading was what he was meant to do; it was “probably the cheapest and most stable pleasure in my life. Sometimes books excite me, sometimes they sustain me, but rarely do they disappoint me...” In his mid-twenties, McMurtry decided he wanted to become an antiquarian book seller, and has been one for about fifty years.

McMurtry first started selling books simply to finance his voracious reading habits. His book collection started with any books he could find. He'd steal from the library, find books in abandoned farmhouses, pick them up at charity stores, or find them in junk shops. For the first twenty years of his book hunting career, he actually read nearly every book he found. “I think sometimes that I'm angry with my library because I know that I can't reread it all.”

McMurtry has handled at least a million books in his life, and is still buying books, old and new. He talks about the intellectual and tactile pleasures of bookselling, his weird fascination with French literature (“I just liked the foreignness of it.”) and affinity for English travel books (“The English have always gone everywhere, and written about it.”), how he gets irrationally competitive at auctions, his fascination with the “silent migration” of books, and his uncanny ability to find volumes inscribed by his friend and fellow bookman Franklin Gilliam; Gilliam often inscribed racy notes to girlfriends in his books. One day he moseyed into McMurtry's bookshop, found one of his books on the shelf, opened and read the inscription, and fled the store, embarrassed. McMurtry never saw him again.

The book gave me a great picture of the crazy, intriguing, romantic world of bookselling—about how there are famous book scouts that the general public doesn't know anything about, about how tricky it is to estimate the cost of an entire library and bid for it, about the eccentricities of bookmen. McMurtry also talks about some of the interesting oddities he's picked up over the years living in a world of traders, including a Sumatran village drum, a Maori war club, and a “fine skull collection.”

Underlying the decades of adventures in book hunting was one motive—McMurtry just never wanted to be without books he wanted to read.

If you love books—not just reading, but actual books—if you like being around them, picking them up, how they feel in your hand, their weight, texture, smell, type, binding,'ll enjoy this memoir. It speaks to those of us who will always retain an affection for books, even in a world that values things more practical—for those of us who love books apart from what's in them.

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