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Originally published Friday, July 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Larry McMurtry: Confessions, arcane and intriguing, of a book hound

Novelist Larry McMurtry ("Lonesome Dove") pens a memoir of his obsession/appreciation of the printed word in "Books: A Memoir."

Special to The Seattle Times

"Books: A Memoir"

by Larry McMurtry

Simon & Schuster, 259 pp., $24

Most people know Larry McMurtry as an award-winning author ("Lonesome Dove") and screenwriter ("Brokeback Mountain").

But he has another life entirely, as a bookman, a dealer in antiquarian books. People in this field are the Mercedes-Benz salesmen of used-book sellers — they deal largely in old and rare books, though since their shelves can be stocked with hundreds of thousands of books (McMurtry currently has 300,000 in his Texas stores and warehouses) there's likely to be more than one Chevy in the bunch.

The problem with "Books" is that the subject of buying and selling books can be, well, boring. Three times during his narrative, McMurtry questions what he's doing. Just 90 pages in he writes:

"Here I am 34 chapters into a book that I hope will interest the general or common reader — and yet why should these readers be interested in the fact that in 1958 or so I paid Ted Brown $7.50 for a nice copy of 'The Anatomy of Melancholy'?"

He has a point. And sadly, McMurtry does dwell on the arcane far too often. But there are more than enough nuggets here worth mining — though of course it helps if you are a big fan of McMurtry's fiction.

McMurtry comes from a family of ranchers. He grew up on a spread outside Archer City, Texas, in a house without books. He lived, he says "in an aural culture." Weather permitting, the family would gather on the porch and the elders would tell stories about events of the day or recent past — most of which young Larry found uninteresting.

Then, in 1942 when he was about 6 years old, a cousin on his way to enlist in the war gave McMurtry a box filled with books, "the gift that changed my life."

McMurtry says he can't remember where he learned to read, only that he could and went through the books — standard boy's adventures of the time — at once, going over most a second time. He became a lifelong reader, and even stole books from his high-school library in his desperation not just to read them but to have them. Even after he went into the bookman trade itself, he initially specialized in the kinds of books he wanted to read.

After managing a store and scouting (that is, going from store to store finding books for dealers), in 1971 McMurtry opened Booked Up in the ritzy Georgetown section of the nation's capital. When rent hikes forced him out 34 years later, he moved the operation to what had once been bookless Archer City.

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The book soars when McMurtry writes anecdotally — about the characters he's met in his travels or about the fact that during all those years in business in Washington, he sold only one real book to a congressman. It flies also on those too-rare occasions when he discusses how his life as a bookman influenced his life as an author. His work as a book scout, for example, provided fodder for an early novel, "Cadillac Jack"; McMurtry, however, made Jack a scout of antiques because he felt that profession would be of greater interest to readers.

But there was so much more I wanted to know. How did McMurtry balance life as a writer and retailer? Did one ever interfere with the other? I'm curious whether the store ever made money, or was subsidized by his book and film earnings.

The book's layout, something not normally the domain of critics, is disappointing. One of the great pleasures McMurtry describes is that of "holding the physical book itself: savoring the type, the binding, the book's feel and heft." But "Books" feels fluffy. Every chapter that ends on a right-hand or odd page is followed by a blank page. There are 40 of them (roughly 15 percent of the book's total girth.) Twenty chapters are one page or less, making it look — no insult intended — like an airport novel, rather than a book of substance.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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