HistoryofScience.com Blog

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Most Famous Antiquarian Bookseller

Reading the
New York Times
review immediately caused me to order and read Larry McMurtry's recently published Books: A Memoir. McMurtry is the author of twenty-eight novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove, and over thirty screenplays, including the coauthorship with Diana Ossana, of the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain. Besides the honor, he received negative fashion notoreity for wearing jeans and cowboy boots to the Academy Awards, as shown, when he received the Oscar with Ossana.

What is less widely known about McMurtry is his parallel career as a book scout and antiquarian bookseller. Years ago I had the opportunity to meet him when I visited the version of his bookstore, Booked-Up, that he used to run in the Washington DC area. Currently he operates one of the largest antiquarian bookstores in the world in his small home town of Archer City, Texas.

As one would imagine, McMurtry's account of his adventures in the book trade is fascinating, even it is retrograde. McMurtry, who still writes all his manuscripts--10 pages per morning--on an old Hermes 3000 typewriter rather than a computer, emphasizes the value being lost to book collectors in the life experience of visiting book shops. On that I fully agree, but the Internet has caused the closure of numerous shops, and it is difficult to turn back the clock. I also understand how he feels about his Hermes typewriter since I used to type all my letters on one until I bought my first PC, a Compaq Plus 28 pound so-called portable, about 1988.

In his memoir McMurtry reminds the reader that he is better-known for his many films and screenplays than for his books, even though some have been best-sellers. His films include Hud, The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment and other classics. In line with other commentators, he observes that reading habits have changed as a result of electronic media. I quote from the beginning of his chapter 57:

"I nowadays have the feeling that not only are most bookmen eccentrics, but even the act they support--reading--is itself an eccentricity now, if a mild one. Interrupted narrative has become a natural thing. One could agrue that Dickens and the other popular, serially published nineteenth century novelists started this, and the television commercial made interruption come to seem normal. But the silicon chip has accelerated the process of interruption beyond all reckoning: iPods, BlackBerrys, laptops all break narrative into shorter and shorter sequences.
"Still, it's at least possible that these toys will someday lose their freshness and an old-fashioned thing, the book, will come to hold some interest for the masses again."

Ironically McMurtry's wonderful memoir is an example of just this sort of interrupted narrative, containing on its 259 pages no less than 109 separate chapters, some only one page long. Maybe that is why it is so easy to read!

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