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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Larry McMurtry and Pat Conroy's brief, enjoyable memoirs about their reading lives

By Hugh Gilmore 

December 22, 2010  

Writers on reading and writing

            Novelists Larry McMurtry and Pat Conroy have both recently published brief, enjoyable memoirs about their reading lives. The book bug, it seems, bit them early and bit them hard and they never got over the fever. For McMurtry, born on a ranch in Texas, and Conroy, born on a Marine base in Georgia, the literary life lifted them from childhoods of hungry, regional isolation to national renown.
           McMurtry's memoir actually comes as a trilogy. "Books: A Memoir" appeared in 2008, followed in 2009 by "Literary Life, A Second Memoir," and in 2010 by "Hollywood: A Third Memoir." Together they reveal what in retrospect seems like an inevitable path from being a bookish boy in Archer City, Texas to being an Academy Award Best Screenplay winner in Hollywood. He's written such works as the "Lonesome Dove" series for TV, and the screenplays for "The Last Picture Show," "Hud," "Brokeback Mountain," and "Terms of Endearment." He also enjoyed several runs on the New York Times Bestseller list along the way. 
            Conroy's recent memoir is titled "My Reading Life." He too has enjoyed time on the New York Times Bestsellers list, and has also known the pleasures and frustrations of seeing his books go from print to movie screen. Among his better known works made into movies have been "The Great Santini," "The Lords of Discipline," "The Prince of Tides," and "Beach Music."
            None of these memoir installments is particularly heavy or philosophical, nor written with much depth. Conroy tries harder, in his determined, gritty way, to lift his story to a level of literary refinement, especially when he writes about the great teachers he had (James Dickey, for one). McMurtry has better name-dropping stories, but writes so casually, almost lazily, the stories feel as they they've been lifted from diaries with scarcely any amplification -- kind of like he's saved Reader's Digest the trouble of condensing his life.
            Oh well, you pays your money and you takes what they give you. I love reading biographies of writers, especially when they talk about the ways in which other writers have affected them. American career paths fascinate me. Why did these two fellows achieve such success when many hundreds of others -- some just as talented -- remain unread and unknown? A topic for another day.

A Walk on the Wild Side with Alfred Owre, fellow militant

Such bliss: An older man, a dreamy hillside and a book!

Let's Get Wild

            You probably think that the life of a Books 'n' Reading columnist is a rather placid one, a life "of quiet desperation." But you'd be wrong. Occasionally we cut loose -- as for example, witness the fact that I've just finished reading "Alfred Owre, Dentistry's Militant Educator" (by Netta Wilson, 1937). Like most of my wilder experiences this one blindsided me.
            Here's what happened. A few months ago, as part of my antiquarian book business, I bought several boxes of old books from an estate. In going through them at home, a book about touring the Irish countryside piqued my curiosity The book itself was nice enough, its bookplate was what really caught my eye.
            Take a look at the picture I've provided above. What a portrait of bliss: an old man, lying on a hillside, the very picture of relaxed contentment as he holds his book. Let the world roll by! he seems to say. The dream of every dedicated reader.
            This was no ordinary bookplate. I'd never seen it before. The owner of the book must have had it designed. Who was he, this "Alfred Owre"? How could I accidentally come to possess this bookplate without wanting to know more about its original owner?
            Thank heavens for Google and the other search engines. I did no other work that day. Hour after hour slid quietly by as I tried to reach into the past and know this fellow, Alfred Owre (pronounced "Ow-er" or "oar," most of the time. I don't know which form he used).
            An immigrant to America from Norway in the early 1880's, a boy burdened with being the brilliant oldest child in a destitute family, he'd been a disciplined, hard-working, honest person who'd lived out the American dream. Drawn to dentistry, he rose within the ranks of academia to become Dean of the schools of dentistry at the University of Minnesota, and later, at Columbia University. And he fought a life-long battle to convert dentistry, which did not require its practitioners to receive much scientific training in those days, into a branch of medical science.
            Each Internet site I found teased me with additional bits of information. Owre was a compulsive, dedicated walker who walked across America. He built the world's greatest personal collection of cloisonné (I know: "be still my heart," but I am always fascinated by people of humble origins who acquire exquisite taste). And he was forced by hard times to sell his collection at auction for a fraction of its worth. His home library was extensive and incredibly broad in its contents. I found some photographs of it in the University of Minnesota's archives and downloaded one to my desktop to use as a screensaver.
So, I might actually own of the books shown here– what and honor!
In trying to reconstruct his library's contents, I found here and there a reference to a bookseller offering a book "ex-libris Alfred Owry." By noting the titles I gained a small sense of what his personal library had been like.
            And here's what I imagine to have been the path whereby the book came into my hands. The Irish tour book was published in the 1820s and must have passed through several hands before Owre purchased it, either at auction or from a used book seller. He put his bookplate in it probably at some point after he'd earned enough to afford it, maybe around 1910. After his death in 1935, his library was sold at auction in New York. From the presence of auction notices in several of the books I'd bought, I'd guess that the owner of the estate I purchased this book from is the link between myself and Alfred.
            Who'll be the next custodian?
            In the meantime, I used the Philadelphia Free Library's inter-library loan system to borrow and read a copy of his only biography. 
            And, in case you want to know, my final verdict is that he was not at all like the fellow depicted on the bookplate (!) He was hard working, driven, as stubborn as he was idealistic, and probably not one to waste time lying on a hillside letting the rest of the world go by! In fact his drive to be in motion probably killed him. He insisted on hiking even after his final illness had laid him low.
            The whole process, from spotting that bookplate to hounding his Google trail, downloading photos of his library, reading his biography, and writing this piece has been fun from start to middle. A hoot, as we say here in Chestnut Hill. Who dares say we don't know how to have fun out here on the peninsula?