A McMurtry Plunge
For years rabid fans of Lonesome Dove (LD) have pressed me to read the work. I finally cracked it open, (or, listened) and thoroughly enjoyed it. This took me down a Larry McMurtry (LM) trail of surprising proportions. I read four of his memoirs (Watler Benjamin at the Dairy Queen the most liked), all short enough to combine into one. These are my favorite kinds of books, ones that show the behind the scenes life of a writer. What fascinated me most about LM was his own self-perception. Given that he is best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel (LD), I assumed his identity was primarily centered on writing. But what emerged in these books was an identity that seemed based on the following (in order of priority):
First and foremost was his book collecting and trading, operating multiple bookstores in multiple cities, owning in the realm of half-a-million books at one point. In fact he stated that his greatest accomplishment was likely the carefully crafted personal library nearing 30,000 volumes, infesting multiple houses. He was so obsessed with book buying and collecting, a New York Times obituary (he passed in March of this year) described his expansive knowledge of the subject this way:
In a 1976 profile of Mr. McMurtry in The New Yorker, Calvin Trillin observed his book-buying skills. “Larry knows which shade of blue cover on a copy of ‘Native Son’ indicates a first printing and which one doesn’t,” Mr. Trillin wrote. “He knows the precise value of poetry books by Robert Lowell that Robert Lowell may now have forgotten writing.”
Second in importance seem to be his life as a reader. Though I cannot comprehend why, apparently the world of book collecting is made up of buyers more than readers. But LM sought to read as much as he could, even boasting of having read the twelve volumes of James Lees-Milne’s diaries at least EIGHT times! (and that was twenty years ago). He also made note that in all of his years of selling books in Washington D.C., he never once sold a book to a member of Congress (implying they do not read much). Let’s hope they sent interns to do their book buying, or bought from their home states.
Third was screen-writing, which he did at a fever pace, often with a writing partner, and for which they won multiple awards. Fourth was his literature writing life, which seemed more of a replacement to teaching English, and income to fuel his book business and obsession. Fifth was his social life, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Susan Sontag, Ken Kesey.
I read a couple of other novels by him in this month long obsession and here’s my final assessment: Like many writers I admire, he only wrote on a typewriter, never owning a computer. And, like many writers I admire, I can’t recommend all of his works. At least one volume I had to set down because of the excessive immoral content. A few others skirt the edges of comfort for me. He clearly writes fast (boasting of five, and sometimes TEN completed pages a day), so not every book is a masterpiece. But I found his life inspiring. Maybe the road to the Pulitzer Prize is littered with shrapnel and lessons from loads of effort. I wouldn’t want to mimic much of his life, but I do appreciate his commitment to work, his book obsession, and his prodigious output. I think the introduction to his Literary Life is one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve encountered and sums up much of his life:
I have had the same postal box for sixty-seven years: Box 552, Archer City, Texas.
My family’s first phone number in Archer City was 9.
On the ranch we still fed cattle out of the wagon.
I write on a typewriter.
I come, not just from a different time, but from a different era.
A Man Called Ove stirred me so much at the end, I was completely caught off guard by the deeply emotional response. I’ve wanted to read Rebecca since learning that it was used as a cipher in an important World War Two espionage effort (See BodyGuard of Lies Volume I). It did not disappoint, though it was not the work of horror I assumed it to be. Much more artful and nuanced than that.
I’ve had a six-month long here and there book discussion online with a friend through Evidential Power of Beauty, which wrapped up last week. Fascinating work and worth the time. We’re moving on to Piper’s Providence now, though at almost 800 pages, I’m guessing that discussion will take longer. The Splending and The Vile by Erik Larson provided an overview of the main characters and love stories of the London Blitz on the front end of WWII. Not as interesting as I had hoped. I began re-reading Christian Ethics by Wayne Grudem in the mornings. I read an early version of this book over fifteen years ago, and it had a huge influence on me, it is so rich, and inspiring. I’m only reading a few pages a day, like a morning devotion, and am in no hurry to finish it, which, at over 1,200 pages, is a good thing.
Been slowly reading a chapter here and there outloud to my youngest from the most recent volume of the Wings of Fire series. I thought her earlier characters were much more interesting and likable. I find the main character in this one a pompous bore and I don’t really like reading so much hubristic dialogue out-loud to my kids, so I skim and summarize at times (which, my daughter, who re-reads these books multiple times, has often called me out on, sometimes even for simply skipping a word or two!). Maybe my judgment is clouded by my criticism of the previous volume.
Books I’m nibling on, enjoying, and yet may or may not finish:
President Lincoln Assassinated by Harold Holzer. A special edition volume from Library of America, it excerpts of the reporting on Lincoln’s death in the days following. Since reading Manhunt (a MASTERPIECE) I’ve found the topic so fascinating.
George Washington’s Writings also by Library of America. His opening list of lessons to live by is an unparalleled glimpse into another age and another type of persons.
Outdated has been a surprisingly refreshing take on dating (with teenagers in the home, it’s an important topic to keep learning about!)
PRO-TIP: A good friend put me onto the Libby App for audio books through our local library. I’ve been really impressed with it. I like Audible, but there are many audio books I don’t care to own. One thing I’ll also do from time to time is check out the paper version along-side the audio version. I’ve found that near the end of an audio book (especially longer ones like Lonesome Dove) I sometimes like to finish them off with the paper version, especially if there are skimmable portions. So I like having the paper book nearby just in case. Reading is still faster than listening, even if you can tolerate 3x playback.
A Few other resources
I re-read C.S.Lewis’s essay on “Bulverism” and its insights are more timely than ever. Check out Justin Taylor’s reflection and summary of the same essay. Tim Keller wrote a very moving article for The Atlantic on his cancer and prospect of approaching death.
Lastly, We have a few new episodes of the podcast out. As always, to see what I’m currently reading, follow me on Goodreads. Listen to The Bottom Line Books Podcast here.
3 thoughts on “A McMurtry Obsession: March/April 2021 Reading Memo”
Loved LD the movie so much I’ve read the book at least twice and the companion books: Dead Man’s Walk, Comanche Moon, and Streets of Laredo for context. Still, LD is the best. I don’t know that any other author comes close to capturing how men relate like LM does in his banter and depth esp. seen in Augustus & Woodrow’s relationship. My kids buy me LD gear as gifts. And, there is a coffee table book on The Making of LD. I didn’t’ know that much of LM’s life, so thanks for all the bio–what a life!
That’s so interesting to hear of your connection to LD! We’ll have to talk more about it the next time we’re in person.
Lonesome Dove was a terrific novel but after that McMurty’s novels became campy. I have not read any of Larry McMcurty’s novels after Lonesome Dove but I have started about 10 always hoping with hopes always dashed.