The Treasure Hunter

Larry McMurtry
Larry McMurtry; drawing by David Levine

Memoirs are inherently wistful, but Larry McMurtry’s reminiscences of his life with books—not as a novelist but as a reader, book scout, and bookstore owner—are especially valedictory. Nearly every page sounds a note of farewell, of stoic, weary resignation, of time running out. While McMurtry’s voice remains modest, low-key, and immensely sympathetic, no amount of charm can disguise a pervasive melancholy in his pages. As he says, “A bookman’s love of books is a love of books, not merely of the information in them.” But, he fears, the age of eagerly turned pages is passing:

Today the sight that discourages book people most is to walk into a public library and see computers where books used to be. In many cases not even the librarians want books to be there. What consumers want now is information, and information increasingly comes from computers.

That is a preference I can’t grasp, much less share, though I’m well aware that computers have many valid uses. They save lives, and they make research in most cases a thing that’s almost instantaneous.

They do many good things.

But they don’t really do what books do, and why should they usurp the chief function of a public library, which is to provide readers access to books? Books can accommodate the proximity of computers but it doesn’t seem to work the other way around. Computers now literally drive out books from the place that should, by definition, be books’ own home: the library.

Books, McMurtry’s new memoir, covers some of the same ground as his much-loved Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen (1999). In those earlier “reflections at sixty and beyond” the novelist frequently discussed his life as a reader-writer-bookman. In essence, Books supplements those pages, even while repeating some of the same stories and arguments. But McMurtry’s prose is now looser, more rambling; he even calls his writing “prattle” and sometimes worries that he’s just telling “fish stories” of interest only to other book dealers and collectors. He may be partially right. Much of the time he simply alludes to one defunct bookstore after another and seldom spends enough time giving real narrative life to his friends, rivals, and colleagues in the trade. Too often Books just feels spotty and hit-or-miss. Yet despite its imperfections, a good many readers will nonetheless enjoy every page.

Like so much of Larry McMurtry’s writing, Books begins and ends in Archer City, the hardscrabble Texas town where he was born and where he now owns what he refers to as a mansion and several bookstores. He didn’t start out as a reader by any means. Cattle ranching was the family business—“McMurtry Means Beef”—and there were virtually no books in the house. As a consequence, young Larry grew up hearing rather than reading stories. But one day in 1942, a cousin on his way to war left the…

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