Larry McMurtry is one of the best American writers of the last 50 years. His novels like Lonesome Dove Saga, Horseman, Pass By, and The Berrybender Narratives are beloved. He has written numerous successful film scripts. McMurtry is also a major American book dealer, running a large used book store in Washington, D.C. and then moving to Archer, Texas.
These three aspects of his career – the book collecting, the novels, and the script writing – form the trifecta with which McMurtry has written a series of small memoirs, the first of which is Books: A Memoir. And for all his skill and ingenuity, book one is a straight swing and a miss.
Books focuses on McMurtry’s lifelong love affair with reading and book collecting. He grew up in a largely bookless Texas home, but once exposed to the power of reading began to devour everything he could get his hands on, and to collect everything else. McMurtry provides anecdotes about his times collecting books, working in book stores, creating his own, and some general thoughts on books and their future. The writing style is typical, straightforward McMurtry.
The problem is the totally disjointed nature of the book. In Books McMurtry makes a James Patterson chapter seem overlong. That is neither joke nor exaggeration. Many chapters in Books – and there are 109 of them – are only a half-page in length, barely 100 words. This review is already the equivalent in length of several chapters in Books. Even for a writer of McMurtry’s skill, there’s not enough meat on these bones, no framework for anything substantial or worthwhile to latch on to. Brief thoughts flicker in and out of existence; personages are introduced and immediately disappear forever. It’s all rather confusing.
For all that, I don’t want to give the impression Books is terrible. If you love books and book collecting, many chapters will greatly interest you. If you find one not to your liking just keep reading, I guarantee you will be beyond it in a few minutes – perhaps several chapters beyond.
Peruse any collection of reviews about Books and you will find readers almost evenly divided between those who love it and those who hate it. Why the dichotomy? I think it has to do with the nature of book collecting. If you are a diehard collector then Books gives you plenty of fascinating glimpses into the life of a fellow collector, and enough to get over the deep flaws in the format. If you are not a diehard collector or just a casual fan of McMurtry then expect to hate this book.
Ultimately, I fall in between the two camps. I really enjoy portions of Books, and have actually read it through 3 times. This is no difficult feat – it can be read easily in one hour. But I also recognize how odd of a book it is, and how much better McMurtry could have made it. Here’s wishing he had.
Code 451 Rating: 4 (Don’t Bother)
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