Larry McMurtry and Books: A Love Affair In Print and On Film

Booked Up, author Larry McMurtry's antiquarian bookshop in Archer City, Texas. Courtesy Studio Seven7.
Booked Up, author Larry McMurtry's antiquarian bookshop in Archer City, Texas. Courtesy Studio Seven7.

"When a knowledgeable old person dies, a whole library disappears,” according to an African proverb. In the case of Larry McMurtry, the warning seems more literal than figurative.

Though still quite alive at seventy-seven, McMurtry had his own mortality in mind last summer when he auctioned off nearly 300,000 titles he has curated over the past four decades for Booked Up, his antiquarian bookstore in Archer City, a town of 1,800 in the Texas panhandle.

His entire book collection, he has told Time magazine, “is a potential liability for my heirs…They don’t know the book world. I do. They have got their own concerns.”

Although the Pulitzer-winning author has spoken publicly of his failing memory and retreat from writing fiction, he also had an altruistic motivation for the event, dubbed The Last Book Sale. "I'd like for the American antiquarian book trade to stay vital and to stay energetic and pouring some books into it is a good way to help," he has said.

McMurtry -- the author of more than thirty novels, two collections of essays, three memoirs, and more than thirty screenplays (including Brokeback Mountain, for which he and his longtime writing partner Diana Ossana won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay) -- and his biblio-collecting ways are the subject of Books, a documentary-in-progress by the husband-and-wife team Sara Ossana and Mathew Provost.

Ossana, McMurtry’s goddaughter, has cited his stoking her love of books as inspiration for the film. She and Provost, who run the production company Studio Seven7 Films, launched a Kickstarter campaign one month ago in the hope of raising $50,000 to help fund it. The crowd-sourced campaign, which ended in the wee hours of this morning, did not reach its goal. Since Kickstarter funding is all-or-nothing, the couple won’t receive any of the nearly $25,000 that was pledged, but we predict that hiccup won’t stop them from fulfilling their mission of bringing McMurtry’s story to the big screen. Along with recounting his history as a book dealer and collector, the filmmakers intend to explore broader issues related to the publishing business and track the actual course of some of the books that were bought at the auction.

That object-oriented approach -- in the cinematic tradition of Tales of Manhattan, which traces an evening coat from person to person, and The Red Violin, which follows the owners of a beautiful musical instrument over 300 years -- sounds like a story line that would draw in McMurtry himself. In his 2008 memoir Books, an account of his lifelong passion of buying, selling, and collecting rare antiquarian books, he writes about his fascination with “the silent migration of books.”

The boy who grew up in a largely “bookless” world and became a novelist in order to support his book collecting habit explained the roots of that fascination in a 1997 interview with The New York Times:

"The tradition I was born into was essentially nomadic, a herdsmen tradition, following animals across the earth. The bookshops are a form of ranching; instead of herding cattle, I herd books. Writing is a form of herding, too; I herd words into little paragraphlike clusters."

McMurtry types on a manual typewriter and steers clear of the digital world. He probably still thinks of literary herding in its physical forms (as grouped bits of ink on paper, bodies in his shop, books on his shelves, etc.), but the tendency can be felt among those discussing his work on fan sites, and in the online community that tried to fund the film version of his life story. If any library can extend to future generations, it will be his. No matter what form the written word takes, and wherever his books wander, his love of literature and community is that strong.