“If it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it,” Ernest Hemingway wrote.
In his own life, the suicidal impulse that took five family members in three generations claimed him as well. Nietzsche warned that if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.
Soldiers and police can attest to this. Words can be tough love, too. The late Larry McMurtry, born into a Texas ranching clan, explained: “Instead of herding cattle, I herd books. Writing is a form of herding, too. I herd words into little paragraph-like clusters.”
Destroyer of the very cowboy mythos in which he was raised, McMurtry’s Old West was a cold west — a lonesome dove indeed. Both groundbreaking writers came at capturing truth from different directions.
Back in the Jimmy Carter administration, I lived down the street from Booked Up, McMurtry’s antiquarian shop in Georgetown. When I stopped by, he would be lost in thought beside shelves of rare books. At the time, I was hunting down Dickens first editions. As for the herding part, I was in the industrial employ of Time-Life Books, purportedly demythologizing the saga of the American West, just as McMurtry was doing. Unlike him, we were still printing the myth.
That harder thing Hemingway and McMurtry were practicing, mixing the brutal with the beautiful, the sensational with the sublime, was what I had to leave Time Inc. to move toward. I found it in documentary filmmaking, from Belfast to Bangkok, Nicaragua to Nebraska. It wasn’t always easy to find the uplift in what was depicted, but sometimes it was words not images that supplied it.
With Hemingway, he had the language even if the situation had not. McMurtry, who clocked a hundred words for Hemingway’s one, presented a West so deep and real that in time it forged its own mythology, whose random brutality mirrored a greater truth.
For me, a close read of the masterpieces of English — the King James Version, Shakespeare and Dickens — drove home indelibly the harsh realities of life and the eternal fight between darkness and light. There was nothing soft about Biblical times, the blood on Macbeth’s hands, the poorhouses of London.
Fast forward, and it is a nightly slog on the news from what bleeds and leads via cellphone culture to the inevitably upbeat closing story. A Manichaean dualism dogs me as I touch the keys of my silent Royal typewriter, a model Hemingway used.
In the arc of narrative on which I have built a career, I recognize the safe harbor that McMurtry found in trafficking as a bookseller in the bound volumes of others. Their specific gravity frames words in durable cuboids whose physicality reassures us that the troubling words and worlds within can be contained. The publisher’s compact with the writer creates a security blanket for wounds within. McMurtry’s choice of antiquarian trade often centered him in leather that felt familiar to the scion of a ranching family. Herding books with words to be heard. Heeding this path, I surrounded myself by treasures in paper.
Working some years later in a friend’s used bookstore, I came to see the enormous impact this zone of comfort had on customers. Our regulars would stop in like clockwork, as if taking sweet medicine. We doctored to souls, often the lost ones, the damaged, the lonely and near-destitute, as much as those with refined tastes and credit cards for interior designs with colored spines. When I purchased collections, I came to know the seller, living or dead, by the collective signature of their library as it limned their thoughts and interests. Show me their books and I’ll show you the person.
A used bookstore is a special surgery, a therapy space and a melting pot, one of the last I know. And post-pandemic, after Amazon, nearly extinct. Last month, Paris lost most of the yellow-awninged bookstores that lent charm to the Latin Quarter.
I think on Larry McMurtry and his reimagining of the past while embracing its traces, and Ernest Hemingway and his crystalline capture and ultimate surrender to darkness and light, and I wonder where the days ahead will carry us. With so little physical media left in the world, and so few oases of books, what alchemy will we find or create to turn base metal and base behavior into gilded armor against the assault of the now and our inevitable entropy. No prose-master myself, merely an eternal student, I grab what solace I can from any day in which the kids call, no old bones ache, no newsroom succumbs to vulture capital, no news is good news, a book beckons.
Whatever the day may bring, we push on, riders in the storm, spurred by words, forcing a smile because it beats the alternative. I read, therefore I am.