In this fascinating and eloquent rumination from Larry McMurtry, he is compelled to write of his love for reading (and writing, his love for collecting books). Most readers have a special place in their lives for books and Larry McMurtry has thought a lot about that place in his own life. The catalyst for this memoir was some reading he was doing of the work of Walter Benjamin (whose birthday would have been on Wednesday). Yes. At the Dairy Queen.
LM knew he was different than most of those he grew up with – the cowboys and ranch hands he worked around. As a young boy he was given a stack of books that started him on his dual love of the book. He refers to them as “the 19 books”, since that’s what the gift consisted of.
I had no notion, as a boy – not the faintest – that I would end up a writer. It was not until my cousin went to war and left me those nineteen books that I even had a book to read; but I did know, early on, that I would have to deal with cowboying, either successfully or unsuccessfully, because there was nothing else in sight. I was given a horse at age three, and didn’t take leave of cowboying until I was twenty-three. For twenty years I worked with my father and with the eight or nine ranchers with whom we swapped work. I realized early on that it would be unsuccess that awaited me because of my profound disinterest in cows. As soon as I got those nineteen books I began a subversive, deeply engrossing secret life as a reader. I very soon knew that reading would be the central and stable activity of my life, and that making a living would have to be made to fit in somehow, but if I could help it, it would not involve cows.
His cowboying leads him to a wonderful extended metaphor for writing as ‘herding’ words’:
First I try to herd a few desirable words into a sentence, and then I corral them into small pastures called paragraphs, before spreading them across the spacious ranges of a novel.
This is such a reader’s book. And a writer’s book as far as that goes. McMurtry drops book title after book title, driving me into “I wanna read that, I wanna read that” mode. But I can’t read ’em all. Readers know this and accept this, but can only try.
One of the first books (or sets of books) that were purchased for him by his parents was The World Book Encyclopedia. Long before the internet or Wikipedia, or search engines, there was the Encyclopedia set. And The World Book set was one of the most aggressively marketed. Our house had one – including the yearly updates volume that went on for several years. I can’t say I ever did any general ‘reading’ from them, but they did get some use as a home work aid – though as I recall, this was frowned upon by teacher’s. Those red volumes seemed ubiquitous back in the fifties.
LM uses the cowboy metaphors for his book collecting avocation too.
Eventually, I formed my own book herds and brought them into more or less orderly systems of pasturage. I even branded them with a bookplate…
I had my own form of ‘branding’ as well, complete with a ritual tap upon completion. At one time there was nothing more satisfying to me than finishing a book and closing it for the final time. I’d tap the cover in signify my pleasure, but not before my own ‘branding’. For years I’d inscribe on the inside page my name, the month and the year. Referencing these years later always brought back memories. On the front side of finishing, there was also the pleasure of starting a new book.
From the first I was attracted to the look and feel of books – I liked to enter what Walter Benjamin called the aura of reading, which involved mental preparation and was a way, I guess, of savoring the experience ahead. This time of anticipation is one of the pleasures of having a personal library.
One of the most influential writers to me as a teenager was Jack Kerouac. My first was The Subterraneans, but of course I read everything by him. LM writes of Kerouac, whose On The Road, Thomas Pynchon calls a great novel:
On The Road was the catalytic book for a generation of American writers – my generation. ..its effect at the time was liberating to a degree hard to imagine now. But Thomas Pynchon, product of Cornell, remembers it, and so do I.
LM writes about buying his first copy of Evergreen Review. I remember when I bought my first copy, at the airport in Miami, where there was at the time one of the best bookstores around. The first magazine I subscribed to – if you don’t count The Sporting News, which was a weekly baseball journal. My father even took up my Evergreen habit and read it for years. LM writes about buying his first copy of Evergreen Review in Dallas.
Another topic that bibliophiles are fond of is shelving their books. LM writes that Susan Sontag favored the chronological method. Then there’s the Dusty Miller school of shelving
Dusty Miller was a much admired London bookseller, who when asked how he arranged his books replied that if he bought a short fat book he tried to find a short fat hole.
LM writes about the ”arcs’ of a novelists output (compared to book collectors, or ‘scouts’ as he refers to them).
The arc of novelists careers is usually very much shorter, and their efforts bleakly unprogressive. If they keep writing fiction much past sixty, they usually become their own recycling unit, reworking, with less verve, veins already explored.
This reminds me of J.M. Coetzee, who has said much the same thing.
Although LM writes that recommending books is a “modern way of exchanging experience”, this is fraught with peril. So much of a readers affinity to certain writers, to certain styles, is dependent on personal tastes. It can even depend on the time of life. We don’t read in a vacuum. Book recommendations can be tricky. There are many, many books that I’ll tout and recommend to anyone who will listen. But there are also books that i dearly love that I’d hesitate to recommend to anyone.
Avid reader’s – and readers that love the process and can tolerate non-fiction (there are some who cannot), will really love this book.