It's a lot more than its cover

  • Article by: CHUCK HAGA , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 30, 2008 - 12:49 PM

Larry McMurtry, known and loved for his books, writes a tender memoir about his love for other people's books.

Book jacket for Larry McMurtry's memoir, "Books."

If you ever sold a book to the late Melvin McCosh, the gruff proprietor of a landmark Dinkytown bookstore in the 1960s and later lord of a 42-room Shorewood mansion stuffed with books, your tome may rest today in the embrace of Larry McMurtry.

In his latest book, a memoir titled simply "Books" (Simon and Schuster, 272 pages, $24), McMurtry -- the author of "Terms of Endearment," and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lonesome Dove" -- reflects not on writing or on turning his stories into movies, but on the buying and selling of books, one or a thousand at a time.

McMurtry wrote the novel ("Horseman, Pass By") that inspired the movie "Hud," gave memorable life to a grizzled Texas Ranger named Gus and co-authored the screenplay for "Brokeback Mountain." But what "Books" makes clear is that McMurtry was and remains, above all else, a bookman -- a hunter of antiquarian treasures, a checkbook-ready reveler in disintegrating libraries, and the contented owner of Booked Up, a bookstore with nearly 400,000 used, rare and collectible books in Archer City, Texas, his hometown.

He can't remember "either of my parents ever reading me a story," and he recalls the ranch house of his youth as "totally bookless." Stories were told, but they sprang from memory, not from the printed page, and that may be why he has imagined so many of his own.

McMurtry eventually bought a great mansion and filled it with 28,000 books. In detail that must be numbing to all but the most devoted booksellers, he writes about the shops he scouted, the arcane treasures he found and the eccentrics who tended the shelves.

"For the first 20 years of my career as a book hunter I actually read almost all the books I had gone to such trouble to find. Getting the books I wanted to read was the main reason for the pursuit." But he also tells of "the pleasure of holding the physical book itself: savoring the type, the binding, the book's feel and heft."

Of McCosh, who died in May 2007, McMurtry offers no personal or professional assessment, unfortunately, but he reports buying "many thousands" of books from him. One wonders if it was Mel's standard pitch that got him: "You need these books more than I do!"

McMurtry still "scouts" for books, and buys and sells them, although his 28 novels and other works have made him wealthy. "One reason I've hung on to book selling is that it's progressive," he writes. "Eventually, all novelists, if they persist too long, get worse. ... Strong talents can simply exhaust their gift, and they do." But with great book dealers, "the longer they deal and the more they know, the better books they handle."

He enjoyed reviewing books, too, mainly because "it brought me free books, at a time when I could not have afforded to buy them.

"By chance the first book I reviewed was 'Dr. Zhivago.' I had never heard of [Boris] Pasternak, but I had, at least, heard of the Russian Revolution. With this shaky background, I did my best."

Chuck Haga is a former Star Tribune writer. He lives in Grand Forks, N.D.

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