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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Larry McMurtry


Last night I got to join the crowd at the Rice Memorial Center’s Grand Hall to hear Pulitzer prize-winning author Larry McMurtry speak.

I knew I had a hot ticket when I saw Bill Hobby work through the crowd and take a seat in the reserved section. A few minutes before the scheduled start the crew rolled away a wall to make room for hundreds of overflow folks. This was quite a turnout for a speaker who had announced that his topic would be ‘the end of the book culture,’ but true to his theme, the audience was mostly people over forty.

McMurtry opened up speaking about Inuit people who traditionally fished with hooks carved out of bone, a skill lost within twenty years after the Hudson Bay Company began supplying them with metal hooks.

He said that children still love hearing stories and turning pages, but by the age of ten or twelve they are lost to electronic media. A bookseller for fifty-five years, he pointed to plummeting sales in this decade. Before that he’d seen that when he made inquiries to other sellers, they would respond by offering to sell their entire collection. For a while, he was buying them, but now he’s begun collecting the signs from failed bookstores. After a five hundred year run, books are being relegated to “talismanic objects from past culture.”

Later, in the Q&A, someone got up to thank the author for his hand-typed reply to a letter they’d sent years ago for advice on the disposition of a collection of Texana they’d inherited. They said that the letter is now the most valuable item in the collection. McMurtry said that not all authors were celebrities, and that he wasn’t one himself. He also said that many authors, such as his old friend Ken Kesey, don’t read books.

Another was a grad student who reported that when he was on the bullriding circuit, it was not unusual to see a paperback copy of a McMurtry novel in the front of a pick-up truck. McMurtry noted that rodeo had become an international sport, but predicted that some events would fall by the wayside, being seen as too slow, driven out by the dominant element, bullriding.

Much like what he had to say about electronic communications. “You can’t blame people, what’s available will be used. A better tool, people are gonna use it.’

Still, it felt like they’re closing the movie house down.

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