One of my favorite books of all time is Lonesome Dove, that neo-classic tale of the West by Texan Larry McMurtry.
Although he has a passion for writing westerns of both period and modern vintage, McMurtry explodes the stereotype of what a writer of westerns is all about. That’s one of the reasons I like his books so much.
Books in his saddlebags
I’ve never been in McMurtry’s home but, I bet that in place of a Winchester rifle and crossed branding irons above a massive fireplace, you would find rows of books packed into wall-to-wall shelving.
I get that image because Larry McMurtry is a guy in love with books.
How do I know that? Because the guy owns one of the larger antiquarian bookstores around, called Booked Up, that comprises four buildings and contains some 400,000 books. That’s bigger than a lot of college libraries, and it’s not found in Houston or Dallas but way out in Archer City, Texas. If that town sounds vaguely familiar, go check out McMurtry’s breakthrough novel, The Last Picture Show or its sequel, Texasville.
This is one literate cowboy.
A vexing question
Because I admire McMurtry the author so much, I plopped down $6.95 plus tax for the current issue of Harper’s Magazine at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport the other day. The article catching my eye was one by McMurtry asking the provocative question, “Will Amazon kill the book?”
Since this is one big-time bookseller asking the question about another, I thought McMurtry might just be the right guy to answer that question.
He did, and the answer is no.
This, despite the Amazon CEO’s apparent desire to see books go to the back of the shelf. Keep in mind we’re talking about the kind of printed book that the world has known for the past 500 years or so, ever since Johannes Gutenberg started cranking them with his movable type.
Reviewing Richard L. Brandt’s book, One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com, McMurtry is quick to give credit to Amazon’s founder as a creative genius. In fact, his review begins by noting the following:
“If the late Steve Jobs was the Thomas Edison de nos jours, perhaps the ever-present Jeff Bezos of Amazon is our Henry Ford. Both Bezos and Ford had a single culture-changing idea that they executed doggedly until the culture came round.”
The Kindle: Year 4
McMurtry is referring not only to the creation of the gigantic online flea market we know as Amazon.com, but also to the new kind of electronic book reader that Amazon launched in 2007 that we know as the Kindle.
But McMurtry disagrees with Bezos that the e-book is going to render ink-on-paper books obsolete as we all migrate to the e-screen of Kindle and – although Bezos might not acknowledge it – the Barnes & Noble version called the Nook.
I wrote about these new technologies a couple years ago in this blog, asking the question, “Will the e-book catch on?” Certainly the sales that Amazon is touting of Kindle seem to indicate they are indeed catching on. But my own personal observations, made over the past year on my college campus of 5,200 undergrads, indicate otherwise. I just don’t see that many students sitting under the trees reading e-books.
Doubting the worst
McMurtry, doubts that e-books will wipe out traditional tomes. Keep in mind, however, he has a financial interest in the health of the printed book. He does have to pay the utilities for all that bookstore space out in Archer city. Nevertheless, he writes:
“Less attractive about Bezos is his obvious irritation at the continued existence of the paperbound book, which provides, still, serious competition to sales of his e-book device, the Kindle.
“He has pointed out that the traditional book has had a 500-year run; he clearly thinks it’s time for those relics to sort of shuffle offstage. Then he will no longer be bothered with old-timey objects that have the temerity to flop open and cause one to lose one’s place.”
Bubbles can burst
Acknowledging the opening-weekend kind of success the Kindle is having, McMurtry cautions, “The culture has surged in the direction of e-books, but the surge might not go on forever. It might be a bubble.”
Those of us who have felt the deep satisfaction of taking our time to browse through a bookstore – large or small – and walking out with more than we expected to buy, can appreciate where McMurtry is coming from.
And that kind of customer satisfaction, especially of finding the unexpected volume that had long eluded us elsewhere, is not always such an accident. Again McMurtry writes, “Stirring the curiosity of readers is a vital part of bookselling; skimming a few strange pages is surely as important as making one click.”
Is older better?
Every time I cast my lot with traditionalists who say the older is better than the newer, I know I run the risk of sounding my age. In fact, the older is not always better. As a writer and a college professor, I know what research used to be like in musty old libraries vs. what it is like now with the library sitting on my lap as those needed references appear in seconds rather than hours.
Still I hasten to add that reading from the printed page in a nicely bound book that you can keep as a reminder in plain sight after you’re finished, is nothing to write off so easily.
At least it doesn’t require a battery or a frantic call to the Geek Squad if the e-reader refuses to waken from its zzzzzzz’s.