I have great affection for everything about this book: the Dairy Queen cover photo, the West Texas rumination, the author’s cherishing of books and words. What a delicious book.
That DQ photo reminds me of the Dairy Queen I’d often stop at in Goldthwaite, Texas, at the intersection of Highway 183 and 16. I used to go there as a teenager when driving to college. Now I take my own kids there now when passing through. A DQ can be a cultural hub in a rural area.
The cover photo, though, is the Dairy Queen in Archer City, Texas. That’s Larry McMurtry’s hometown, as well as the subject of his book The Last Picture Show. As he shares here, most of his books are probably about Archer City. They’re about big spaces and the people resolved to stay on them. Even if staying on them doesn’t make any sense. McMurtry is a patron author of lost causes – the West, cowboys, independent second-hand booksellers, small towns.
What surprised me the most in this book is the affection McMurtry has for so many things – his childhood, his family, reading, and of course for books themselves. For some reason I thought he was a bit of a curmudgeon. I thought that being a cultural “fish out of water” as a reader in a small West Texas town without a library would make him self-conscious or bitter when looking back. Not really – he seemed more bemused than anything, laughing at his own fear of poultry and his inability to cowboy. After college and all of his success, he was happy to return to Archer City. Even to bring hundreds of thousands of books home to share what he loves.
Some passages I loved:
On taking reading seriously:
“I remember thinking, after two of three readings [of ABC of Reading, that this man, Ezra Pound, was as serious about writing as my father was about cattle – in those days I measured all seriousness against my father’s attitude about cattle.”
On books and love:
“Why does one remember one thing vividly and another thing vaguely, if at all? In this course of this piece I’ve come to realize that the only things I remember as well as I remember certain books, found in certain bookshops, in such and such condition, are women, about whom I mean to say little or nothing just at the present time.”
McMurtry also writes candidly about his heart attack and the trauma of the surgery. During his recovery he read Proust and Woolf, but then was unable to read for years afterwards. He was fixated on an idea that while his brain didn’t remember the surgery, his body did, and somehow he was a different person after that. It took him years to make peace with the invasiveness of his heart surgery (Where do you go when you’re not in your body?).
He also spends considerable time talking about the thrill of the hunt of collecting great books. For him, bookselling uses a different skillset than writing. However, he compares both writing and bookselling to herding cattle – herding words into paragraphs and chapters and books; amassing collections and choosing the best ones.
It’s interesting to think that McMurtry grew up in Archer City and that writer Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian) grew up only 125 miles away in Cross Plains. McMurtry often wrote, more or less, about Archer City. Howard wrote about anything but Cross Plains, inventing new worlds and creatures. We engage with our worlds very differently. (Cross Plains has a good Dairy Queen, too, by the way.)
A personal note – McMurtry sold off hundreds of thousands of his books around 2013. However, he did keep the location of his main book store in Archer City. It’s called Booked Up. As far as I can tell, it’s only open from Thursdays – Sundays. Not enough business. A lost cause? I’m going to drive up there in a couple of weeks, eat at the local cafe, browse the stacks, spend too much money. Pay respects to the legacy of a fellow book lover.