Thursday, July 10, 2014

Book Review: "Books" by Larry McMurtry

Imagine three separate books:
1) Stephen King writing about his time teaching high school, in which the narrative involves him going into each teacher's classroom, discussing exactly one thing that will be covered in class that day, and moving on to the next classroom with the previous teachers never mentioned again.
2) A world famous potter who decides to take up selling crockery as well as making it, who then writes a book about all of the other famous (well, "famous") pottery salesmen that he has interacted with, what pieces he bought from them, and other good deals he made in the business.
3) Donald Trump writing a reflection on his time in the business world in which absolute no mention is made of his own wealth or success, other than the occasional oblique reference (i.e. "When my chauffeur moved out we used his room as a guest bedroom," or some such). 
Now imagine these three books are all one book written by a Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award winning author writing about being an antiquarian bookseller, and you've got a loose understanding of Larry McMurtry's Books. Books is most certainly not a book for everyone. In fact, if it weren't as well-written as it is (hence the three stars it gets on Goodreads), it would be unreadable. In the hands of a lesser writer this would be nothing more than self-indulgent tripe. In McMurtry's hands, it takes a subject that most people care absolutely nothing about--that is, the selling of rare and expensive books--and turns it into a fairly quick and innocuous read.
And, well, that's the best that can be said about it. Lucidly written with short chapters, other than the occasional personal reflection or comment about a usually-not-very-well-known personage, there really isn't much here of interest. Again, it is well written and by no means painful to read. I just can't bring myself to care about selling antique books.

The stacks at "Booked Up", McMurtry's store in Archer City, Texas.

And that may be part of the problem--selling antique books is selling books as objects, not as books. To be fair, McMurtry seems to also like books as books, that is, as a reader. But it's still off-putting. When I worked in a bookstore (in the now-defunct Borders chain), whenever anyone would come in and say "I want a book that looks good on a coffee table," I'd have to bite back the response "and I want you to get out of my store!" Don't get me wrong, books as objects certainly have their appeal. I love the feel and the smell and the general idea of sitting with a hefty, well-made book while drinking coffee and reading. And now I want to do that. Be right back...


Where was I? Right, books as objects. Yes, I am glad that not all books are mass markets (though I would love it if all books were mass market prices!). And I do love used bookstores--my wife and I hit a number of them whenever we go on vacation. It will certainly be a cold day in hell before I voluntarily switch over to eReaders! But with that said, I also cannot stomach the idea of paying $40,000 for a book. (I forget which one that was, but there were a number of them.) The information in it may or may not be worth that much--we'd certainly pay at least that to get a copy of, say, Aristotle's lost work on comedy, or a rediscovered Shakespeare play--but that is not usually what people are spending money on. They're buying books the same way that collectors buy coins or stamps (they still do both of those things, right? at least I didn't go with pogs...). And books simply are not coins or stamps, they're books. Their contents have value that is greater than their physical structure, and to pay that much for the physical structure of a book when the contents are available cheaper elsewhere, well, again, that's off-putting to me. I can't help but suspect that such people have failed to understand the true value of literacy.

Okay, end rant. Again, I do not think this applies to Larry McMurtry, he at least does seem to enjoy both reading and writing (though his reading tastes and mine are vastly different, and I suspect that never the twain shall meet).

So, should you read this or not? Well, I'd say that if you find it like I did (used for less than a dollar), pick it up and skim through it. The vignettes are occasionally interesting enough to be worthwhile, even if the whole isn't as interesting as it could have been. What you probably should not do is pay full price and use it as decoration on a coffee table. Because then I will have to fight you.

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