Random Recommendations and a Review

I read a lot. I am eccentric in my curiosity and tend to cross over disciplines and make connections between them for fun. Here is a short post about some of the random and eccentric collections of reading materials I’m going through related to a study of “the book.”

What happens in the brain when we read and how has reading evolved: Maryanne Wolf’s, Proust and the Squid 

More philosophical about what happens to us when we read as an experience: Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read.

For local fun: The Man who Loved Books Too Much by Alison Hoover Bartlett. I have since made a Bay Area tour to many of the book stores mentioned in its pages.

Why collect?: I have devoured all of Nicholas Basbanes’ books and from those tomes gathered even more leads for reading and bookstores to visit. The experiences that Basbanes describes in his many interviews with book collectors are informative of the different reasons and methods by which a person might decide to collect.

I have also gone old-school and read books, such as The Anatomy of Bibliomania Volumes I and II by Holbrook Jackson and The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac by Eugene Field.

SO MANY CATALOGUES. I regularly read through exhibit and rare book sellers catalogues for examples of book prices, values, and collections that have been exhibited at the Grolier Club or at other academic institutions. In this quest, I have ended up with an unexpected and awesome collection of reference books about books and book collecting. I expect this resource to continue to expand at about the same rate as my continuing questions about the field. My favorite catalogues come in the mail from John Windle Antiquarian Bookseller, Brick Row Book Shop, and Between the Covers Rare Books.

McMurtyI have also read several memoirs of book collectors, including Larry McMurtry’s memoir, simply titled Books: A Memoir, (Simon and Schuster, 2008). (There is a sequel to this memoire that I have not read yet.)

Here is my short review about this quirky memoire:

The book was a less glorified, more realistic portrait of how interwoven books can become throughout the ups and downs of a person’s life. It wasn’t an academic exercise as many of the books I’ve been reading are. I was happy to read a book that dealt honestly with the uncertainties of life enmeshed with the certainty of books. [I’ll preface this review by admitting that I am not a fan of American Westerns and have never read any of McMurtry’s novels. However, after reading this, I picked up a copy of Cadillac Jack.]

McMurtry starts his memoir by explaining that he did not come from a reading family and there were no books in his home growing up. A cousin heading out to service in WWII brought him a gift of a box of nineteen books when he was around five or six. This was the act that set off his life-long journey with books.

In the beginning of his career, McMurtry used book selling to finance his reading habits, hoping he would one day be able to become an antiquarian book seller. He describes reading through the World Book Encyclopedia and Britannica at a young age. He collected a sizable reference library and enjoyed bibliography more than just the content of the books he was collecting.

A large part of his memoir covers McMurtry’s experience living and working in California. I was able to visit many of the bookstores that are still in existence and mentioned in the book, such as Serendipity, Brick Row, Argonaut, and City Lights. I enjoyed his descriptions of the different characters in the book business (many of them sounding quite comical and fascinating, even if curmudgeonly). McMurtry learned the book trade from these relationships along with the hours he spent browsing and hunting on his own.

The book is filled with short chapters which are more like vignettes about various collectors and booksellers he has encountered and worked with over the years. McMurtry also discusses acquisitions, trading, scouting, auctions, and his own collections as well as the creation and operation of his own book store. I made several notes and tips to remember from these sections as I figure out how to build my own collection.

Through the birth of his son, divorce, career changes, success as a novelist, and the ups and downs of his life, he tells of coming back to joys that I can relate to, although on a much smaller scale, such as unpacking and organizing newly acquired books, or book hunting across the country and being excited by a rare find. The book was a quick and enjoyable read about a fellow bibliophile and left me considering new plans of action for my own book collecting explorations.

The personal revelations about how books have been important to McMurtry emotionally as well as part of his professional career are what makes the memoire touching. He admits that few people in the lay public may enjoy hearing these tales, but for this bibliophile it was affirming.  In this memoire, books are not just a career for McMurtry; they are a way of being in the world.

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