Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Two Books About Reading: Hornby & McMurtry

Most of the time I have several books being read at one time. I'll keep one or two in my office and another on the bedside table. Currently on that table is the novel Art in America by Ron McLarty and David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, a book I've been reading for two years now. I refuse to say I'm not going to finish it – I will – I'm just taking my time. In the office last night I finished two books within an hour of each other: More Baths Less Talking by Nick Hornby and Literary Life: A Second Memoir by Larry McMurtry.

It was pure happenstance that these two books were read at the same time; a happy accident. I've written here about Hornby's column, collected into this latest book, "Stuff I've Been Reading," in the magazine Believer. It's the job I want, writing that column about reading and everything that goes on around it, propelling it and getting in the way of it – family, work, television. If I could figure out a way to copy the concept and someplace that would allow me to steal so brazenly, then I would do so in a heartbeat. McMurtry's book is the second in a trilogy of subject-specific memoirs. The first, Books, focuses on his bookselling empire in Archer, TX, how he got started in reading books, and in scouting and selling them. It's a fascinating subject to me and, so, McMurtry is the one to get into to satiate that curiosity. Literary Life deals with his life as a writer and, for someone who's written over 40 books as well as screenplays, it's slim at 175 pages. The third installment, he reminds us throughout the current book, is on his Hollywood life. I can't wait.

There are similarities in the two writers, though not with their writing style. Both Hornby and McMurtry have written fiction, nonfiction and screenplays. Both, as we see in these books, are adept with literary criticism. Both had their first novels turned into well-received movies – Hornby, High Fidelity; and McMurtry, Horseman, Pass By which was made into the film Hud. It could be said that Nick Hornby is my generation's Larry McMurtry. I guess. I'd probably never say that, but there are the similarities. Age, however, gives McMurtry the edge on being McMurtry. He's prolific, he's a man of letters, he was president of PEN America for two terms and he's won a Pulitzer Prize. I must admit, though, that, other than the first two books of these memoirs, I've never read anything by him, while I've read everything Hornby has written.

I admire both, though, not just for the work they do in putting pen to paper, but in the lives they lead surrounded by what it is that drives all writers: books. They both write of them lovingly (of others' books, they're both far too self-deprecating and humble to laud their own prose, the most either of them say about their output is something akin to, "I guess that was pretty good" or "People seemed to like it"). McMurtry is a wealth of knowledge and references authors and books throughout that I had never heard of, but which piqued my interest. The purpose of Hornby's column is to pique interest and he does so to the point that I had to read this collection with a pencil in hand to underline the titles I want to seek out. He never bashes, and only writes about those books he enjoyed or took something from, and I commend that. There are plenty of bad books out there, but there are so many good or great books that there is no point in spending the time and space to tear another writer down.

There are plenty of books. No one highlights this fact more than McMurtry, whose bookselling empire encompasses three massive buildings in Texas. In the book business, the majority of books printed and put up on the shelf for sale are regarded as "wallpaper." They're there to fill space and make a shop interesting, and the reality is that there are only a handful of books that are expected to sell and that are marketed that way. It's dispiriting, isn't it? Both as a lover of literature and, especially, as someone who writes and hopes to sell it. But that's precisely why books such as these – More Baths Less Talking and Literary Life – are important. The authors take those tomes off the shelves, they tear down the wallpaper and read it, think about it and share it with us. Maybe it's a good model for all of us who love reading. Sure, you can read the latest bestseller, anything in the Top Five on The List, whichever list you adhere to, but then find out who that author reads and read his or her work. I eagerly await Hornby's next novel but, in the meantime, maybe I'll read Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín because I've never read any Tóibín, but Hornby really liked that book.

Both men are avid, almost compulsive, readers and both, certainly, are writers. The reading, they both agree, informs the writing, and both touch on it wonderfully toward the end of their respective books. Indulge me as I copy those passages here so that I will know just where they are when I need the same inspiration and guidance that they find on their own shelves.

Larry McMurtry:
Seeing my books reminds me that, in a modest way at least, I'm part of literature and the whole complicated cultural enterprise that is literature. I have tried to write books that belong with the books I have gathered and read. The process is far from simple. My thousands of books are mainly the work of minor writers such as myself. Minor writers provide the stitchery of literature. Besides, major writers often find themselves writing minor books. Major writers aren't major all the time, and minor writers occasionally write better than they normally do, sometimes producing a major book. The commonwealth of literature is complex, but a sense of belonging to it is an important feeling for a writer to have and to keep. Sitting with the immortals does not make one an immortal, but the knowledge that they're around you on their shelves does contribute something to one's sense of what one ought to strive for. An attitude of respect for all the sheer work that's been done since scribes first began to scratch on clay tablets is a good thing to cultivate.

Nick Hornby:
One of the things that did me no good at all in the formative years of my career was prescriptive advice from established writers, even though I craved it at the time. You know the sort of thing: "Write a minimum of fifteen drafts." "A good book takes five years to produce." "Learn Ulysses off by heart." "Make sure you can identify trees." "Read your book out loud to your cat." I cannot tell an oak from another tree, the name of which I cannot even dredge up for illustrative purposes, and yet I got by, somehow. Walk into a bookshop and you will see work by writers who produce a book every three months, writers who don't own a TV, writers with five children, writers who produce a book every twenty-five years, writers who never write sober, writers who have at least one eye on the film rights, writers who never think about money, writers who, in your opinion, can't write at all. It doesn't matter: they got the work done, and there they are, up on the shelves. They might not stay there forever: readers, now and way off into the future, make that decision. Claire Tomalin's wonderful and definitive book (Charles Dickens: A Life) is, above all, about a man who got the work done, millions of words of it, and to order, despite all the distraction and calamities. And everything else, the fame, and the money, and the giant shadow that he continues to cast over just about everyone who has written since, came from that. There's nothing else about writing worth knowing, really.

Now, I think I'll go read.

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