Sunday, July 27, 2008

Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry

Larry McMurtry is a novelist whose books have been made into movies that most people would recognize: Hud, The Last Picture Show. Terms of Endearment, and the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Lonesome Dove. I must admit that I've not read any of his books, but I have seen all of the movies made from his books.

I wanted to read this book because it was written about his passion for books. McMurtry says he developed this passion despite growing up in a largely "bookless" world. He tells stories about starting out as a book scout and collector who eventually opens stores of rare and collectible editions, and I was blown away by the fact that he maintains a personal library of 28,000 volumes. This is probably a book that will appeal only to a specialized audience: booklovers, book collectors, or book fanciers, as it is filled with anecdotes about the eccentric characters that buy and sell, collect, or lust after rare books. But I feel that a few of the points that he makes towards the end of the book are worth pondering by a larger audience.

He says he nowadays has the feeling that not only are most bookmen eccentrics, but even the act they support--reading--is itself an eccentricity now. He believes that interrupted narrative has become a natural thing. Older authors like Dickens who were serially published may have started it, but the silicon chip has accelerated the process of interruption with the advent of iPods, BlackBerrys, laptops, etc. All, he says, break narrative into shorter and shorter sequences. Still, he is hopeful that someday these toys will lose their freshness and old-fashioned things like books will come to hold some interest for the masses again.

But the antiquarian book trade has declined precipitously in just the last 50 years. McMurtry bemoans that fact, and though he says he has no satisfactory answers as to why, he does provide a few clues. Few young people are forming personal libraries today. The books bought new at the chains soon trickle back into the secondhand market. But unfortunately there are fewer and fewer secondhand book shops to absorb these castoffs. The secondhand book business has existed for centuries because people want to read. But seeing the challenges that have occurred in the last few years, it begs the question: we can all survive the loss of the secondhand book trade, but can we survive the loss of reading?

And now I will quote from his book the part that really hit home to me, as a librarian:

"Today the sight that discourages book people most is to walk into a public library and see computers where books used to be. In many cases not even the librarians want books to be there. What consumers want now is information, and information increasingly comes from computers. That is a preference I can't grasp, much less share, though I'm well aware that computers have many valid uses. They save lives, and they make research in most cases a thing that's almost instantaneous. They do many good things. But they don't really do what books do, and why should they usurp the chief function of a public library, which is to provide readers access to books? Books can accommodate the proximity of computers but it doesn't seem to work the other way around. Computers now literally drive out books from the place that should, by definition, be books' own home: the library."

I agree with this statement wholeheartedly. As a librarian I am forced to remind people every day that the library is about so much more than just books. But as a dedicated book lover, they would be enough for me. I don't have to have computers or cafes or anything like that to pull me into a library. The books are what motivate and move me and capture my heart. If you are this kind of book person, you'll probably enjoy McMurtry's book.

1 comment:

Maryann Miller said...

What an interesting piece. Thanks for sharing all this about the book. I was not even aware of it, and that is what is so wonderful about these Internet connections. I was reading a message on a site for promoting books and one of the members mentioned this blog.

I really like McMurtry's work, so this is a book I will definitely have to ask for at my local library.

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