I have always enjoyed reading about other cultures and foreign countries. The appeal is to learn about or experience a different time and place. That is not what I expected to find in a book titled Books: A Memoir, Larry McMurtry's latest work of nonfiction. How different could a bookseller's life be than a librarian's life? Very different, it turns out.
The book as physical object is much more important to the antiquarian bookseller. McMurtry is always concerned with editions, conditions, and inscriptions. Is there a dust jacket? Who has owned this book? What is it worth in dollars and cents? As a librarian, I just want an attractive copy that someone will borrow, not a first edition with proper markings.
As a public librarian, I need to acquire books that will appeal to various members of the community. While not every book is going to appeal to multitudes, I do want to see each go out several times with some regularity. As a bookseller, McMurtry only has to find one person to buy each book. Of course, that is not always easy. He describes numerous books that he kept in stock for decades before either selling it to a customer or throwing it into a big sale to another bookseller.
If McMurtry is correct, antiquarian booksellers sell more to other booksellers than to customers. They seem more like collectors than business people sometimes. Many seem to have a strong love of books that warps their profit instinct. Many of the colleagues that McMurtry describes have gone out of business.
I do recognize a common concern in McMurtry's statement on page 249:
The bane of large secondhand book dealers is that junk inevitably seeps in, and the iron rule is that good books do not pull bad books up: bad books pull good books down.
Amen. Our shelves look so much better after a good weeding, and the good books become easier to find.
I thought that Books: A Memoir started kind of slowly. It seems so strange at first to have such very short chapters with lots of empty pages between chapters. When he opens a shop, the narrative really seems to take off, as he has many odd stories to tell.
Recommended for readers who like quirky, opinionated books.
McMurtry, Larry. Books: A Memoir. Simon & Schuster, 2008. ISBN 9781416583349