- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2008

A MEMOIR

By Larry McMurtry

Simon & Schuster, $24, 272 pages

REVIEWED BY CHRISTIAN TOTO

Author Larry McMurtry warns readers twice during his latest nonfiction book about the perils of writing a memoir about his life as a book man. It’s hardly a sexy topic, we’re told, and unless an author can connect book collecting with universal themes the effort will be fruitless.

So it’s a mystery why the prolific author rarely makes those connections in “Books: A Memoir,” his meandering new release.

It’s hard to fathom how Mr. McMurtry (“Lonesome Dove,” “The Last Picture Show”) could take a potentially boring subject — book collecting and sales — and render it as dull as advertised. But the proof is on the page.

Sure, Mr. McMurtry includes some revealing passages about his book collecting days. He’s too pure a storyteller to ever slump to soporific levels. But the memoir finds him near-desperate to keep our attention for any extended period.

“Books” starts with promise and flair. Mr. McMurtry grew up in a home virtually bereft of books. When a small stack finally fell in his lap, he devoured every last one. Each volume was a small treasure, something to be savored and read over and again.

The books themselves were a far cry from great literature. That didn’t matter. They transported him to another place far from his home near Archer City, Texas. Books also provided his first link to American popular culture.

A lifelong reader was born. But his relationship with books grew more complicated with the passing years.

His book collecting began with a bulk purchase of pre-code comic books, the kind that didn’t have to adhere to the same editorial standards Spidey and company do today. The advent of mass market paperbacks only intensified his desire to read and collect. He was still a teen at this point, but he often had to shop around his small home town to find books worth his while.

His serious book buying didn’t start until he had established himself as a university professor and fledgling author. By then, he was mad about reading and collecting books, and it was a logical progression to become a book man — a buyer and seller of used books as well as a book store owner.

“Books: A Memoir” jumps liberally back and forth through time but with little sense of purpose. The scattershot approach makes the memoir feel like a first draft, as if he were furiously jotting down random memories without regard for their impact on the reader. Many chapters span only a page or two in length.

The chapters’ brevity also helps keep the reader from developing any rhythm with the material. Every time a potentially fascinating character appears, he or she is soon discarded for the next anecdote.

At times, the memoir drops so many names it feels like an excerpt from a gossip column - but without the juicy insider information that makes page-turning a must.

Plenty of the assembled tales will be of only passing interest to readers. The intricacies of even the biggest book deals amount to pretty dry fare, and Mr. McMurtry’s clinical approach doesn’t help.

Late in the memoir Mr. McMurtry says he didn’t want to get too personal with the people who crossed his path out of a sense of respect. That approach keeps the reader at a safe distance.

He employs that same method toward Marcia, his long-time partner in book collecting and sales. A secondary character of her stature could have gone a great way toward illuminating the memoir.

But Mr. McMurtry doesn’t share enough about himself, either. He’s more revealing about his younger years, and those recollections are by far the book’s finest passages. Mr. McMurty takes us inside the second-hand book stores and college libraries of his youth with the kind of detail you’d expect from the Pulitzer Prize-winner.

Readers will be hard pressed to take away much new about Mr. McMurtry beyond some eccentricities that could be attributed to many successful writers.

He does offer one morsel that might reveal more than intended. One of the perks of book-selling, he says, is that it’s progressive in nature. Novelists, by comparison, tend to regress over time.

“Strong talents can simply exhaust their gifts, and they do,” he writes.

He’s equally honest about more recent developments in his long relationship with books. The author isn’t a kid anymore, and the time he once took for granted is slipping away. He won’t be able to reread all his favorite books, or even the bulk of them, and that fact has left him feeling ambivalent toward his current collection.

“Books: A Memoir” reveals the depths of Mr. McMurtry’s affection for books, but it’s not personal or probing enough to rub off on the reader.

Christian Toto, who writes frequently on popular culture for The Washington Times, lives in Denver.

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