Friday, April 8, 2016

Sharing stories

Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen seems like an odd title, especially for a memoir by someone other than Walter Benjamin, but then it is an odd book. Novelist Larry McMurtry, whose memoir it is, calls it an essay throughout, and much of it reads like an essay. Yet more of it reads like a memoir, so that is what I choose to call it.

Walter Benjamin
Walter Benjamin was a German philosopher and cultural critic whose book Illuminations McMurtry remembers first opening in the Dairy Queen in Archer City, Texas. He recalls drinking Dr Pepper and reading Benjamin's thoughts about "the growing obsolescence of what might be called practical memory and the consequent diminution of the power of oral narrative." In other words, people don't sit around sharing stories the way they once did. There are televisions to watch, various kinds of electronic gizmos to occupy their attention and a million things to do and places to go. The Dairy Queen, McMurtry finds, is the only place left in Archer City where people still actually sit and talk to each other.

That's where his essay/memoir starts. From there he reflects on the history of the McMurtry family in Texas, his father's hopeless efforts to make a success of a relatively small cattle ranch and his own rejection of a life spent with cattle for one spent with books, both writing them and selling them. His stories here are the kind someone might once have told by a fire or around a dinner table, or perhaps while whittling with other whittlers. Instead he presents them in this fine book.

Here are a few lines from his book I found particularly interesting:

I'm writing this book with a pen, unlike my twenty-two previous books, because I don't want the sentences to slip by so quickly that I don't notice them.

Just as reading slowly aids us in understanding what we read, so writing slowly aids in understanding what we write or in being certain what we write is really what we mean to say. But is it really necessary to use a pen, as opposed to using a keyboard more deliberately? And what does this say about the thought McMurtry put into his 22 previous books?

But as Ian Watt has sagely informed us, without lightly employed middle-class ladies who were not allowed to do the housework anymore, there was no readership of sufficient size to support publishers, booksellers, and novelists.

Isn't that interesting? The publishing industry thrived at the time in our history when middle-class women had servants and no jobs, giving them time to read. The problems faced by this industry today can be traced to fewer people having the time to read and, perhaps even more significantly, having the desire to read.

Even a few bad books can make a whole room full of good books look tatty.

Some used bookstores place their least desirable books just outside their front door. They may help draw shoppers to the store. If they are stolen or ruined by a sudden rain, it's no great loss. The important thing, as McMurtry suggests, is that these books are outside the store, not inside where they would detract from the better quality books on display.

I still believe that books are the fuel of genius. Leaving a million or so in Archer City is as good a legacy as I can think of for that region and indeed for the West.

If I ever visit Archer City, Texas, I will head first, not to the Dairy Queen, but to Booked Up, Larry McMurtry's bookstore. He has been gathering books for decades and has placed them in his bulging shop, spread over several buildings. Interesting, isn't it, that he thinks of these books, not the ones he has written himself, as his legacy to his hometown?

No comments:

Post a Comment