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Larry McMurtry’s enduring passion: buying books

By Gary Jacobson

July 29, 2008 at 9:31am

Larry McMurtry’s latest book, titled simply Books, is a memoir of his many decades as a book dealer. One of his favorite activities, he writes, has always been buying books. Lots of books. His personal library at his home in Archer City, Texas, numbers 28,000 volumes and his bookstore there has nearly 400,000 volumes spread over several buildings.

His memoir is getting some rough reviews. The Austin American-Statesman, in his home state, called it “rambling, disorganized, dull.” The New York Times says it “reads like notes waiting to be assembled into a book.”

There might have been a time when criticism like that bothered McMurtry. Early on in his career he wore a t-shirt that read “a minor regional novelist,” referring to himself, or what he perceived critics thought of him.

But a Pulitzer Prize (for Lonesome Dove) and an Academy Award (screenwriter on Brokeback Mountain) pretty much eliminate any use of the word “minor” in reference to his nearly 50-year writing career.

McMurtry is happy to be working and still writing.

During an appearance in Dallas earlier this month with his Brokeback co-screenwriter, Diana Ossana, McMurtry was asked how their collaboration began.

McMurtry had a heart attack and bypass surgery in the early 1990s and afterward he just showed up at Ossana’s house, he said.

According to the Dallas Observer, which covered the event, Ossana then interrupted McMurtry.

“I thought he would just be there for three days, but he stayed three years,” she said. “He quit writing. But not only that, he stopped reading as well. He was one of those people who read seven newspapers a day and maybe 10 books a week. He just sat on the couch. He became an outline of himself.”

McMurtry refused to write without Ossana’s help, the Observer said.

“I was very badly wounded,” McMurtry said. “I didn’t even go into my bookshop for five years. And that’s a big deal for me.”

In Books, McMurtry talks briefly about his bout with depression.

McMurtry’s newest book is indeed a bit rambling and disorganized, but if you like rummaging in antiquarian bookstores, it is never dull.

He writes a little about his own writing and about his son, James, a singer-songwriter. (John Mellencamp produced James McMurtry’s first album.) But, mainly, Books is about buying books and selling books, an enduring passion for McMurtry.

In one short chapter, McMurtry writes about coming across a fat copy of The Whale, the British title for Moby-Dick, in a group of books he was trying to buy. The copy had been owned by a prominent British author and editor who was trying to shorten the Herman Melville classic to make it more salable.

“He began his editorial work by drawing a bold line through ‘Call me Ishmael,’” McMurtry writes of the British editor.

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