Friday, August 22, 2008

Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry

I've never read anything else by McMurtry, which is sad, I know. These days, I am more likely to try new authors -- particularly famous older novelists -- by picking up a minor non-fictional work, particularly if it's related to books or publishing.

Books is McMurtry's memoirs of bookselling, with very occasional sidetrips into other parts of his bookish life. (He's been a novelist since the early '60s and a screenwriter since not long after that, but he seems to see himself essentially as an antiquarian bookseller.) McMurtry has the seasoned novelist's attitude towards research -- it's only for things that he doesn't already know about -- and so this book is his memories as they come, without any attempt to check them against records or other people's memories.

It has 109 chapters, some of which barely make it to the end of the first page and none of which stretch more than five pages. In them, McMurtry tracks backwards and forwards, covering aspects of the same booksale or different encounters with the same rich collector in discrete little bits. It probably is most cohesive and makes the most sense if you're already in Larry McMurtry's head and already know all of this stuff; he doesn't make any particular effort to organize the book or to carefully introduce readers to all of these characters.

McMurtry is getting on in years, and he has the grumpiness of a man from another era about change and new things, particularly electronic media and the Internet. So it's a bit ironic that Books reads a lot like a blog: it's a series of only thematically connected bits of writing, all of which seem dashed off and many of which don't end so much as stop. It doesn't have the same sense of being written in time as a blog does, the connectedness of a piece of prose written in a specific date-stamped time, but that doesn't make Books stronger -- rather the reverse, actually.

Books doesn't go into enough depth to satisfy real fans of old books, and no one who isn't a fan of old books will be terribly interested in Books to begin with. The final product is pleasant enough to read, but there's hardly any meat here; it feels like a book that Simon & Schuster let McMurtry get away with because he promised them that he's working on a big Western novel next. I'd avoid this book unless you're a McMurtry completist.

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