Sunday, November 6, 2022

Three Books That Broke the Reading Drought, Part 1

I had an odd phenomenon going on this year: I kept quitting books. I must have started 10 or 20 in a row—books that looked great, things I’d been wanting to read—and then got 30 or 40 pages into them, and put them down. I just lost interest and couldn’t get it back. A terrible case of the reading blahs. 
This happened enough that I wondered if my eyesight was going, or maybe something was wrong with my brain. Or could it be that I’d just fallen out of love with reading? Like when you go on a date with somebody who’s really great, but in the end, they do *nothing* for you down in the body? Could it be that the thrill muscle just didn’t thrill anymore? 
And then, much like dating, I found the right book and the thrill muscle made its return. And weirdly, I found the thrill three times in a row—three books that broke the reading drought and were so good that here I am, foisting little reviews of them on you, thinking maybe they’ll thrill you too. Here’s the first one; I’ll publish the other two in separate posts. 

Larry McMurtry 
(Touchstone, 2000) 

This slim book, like an old flame, had been sitting on one of my bookshelves for years. McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is one of my all-time favorite books, and I’d read other things by him that I liked, but for some reason I’d never cracked this one open; it sounded too dour or something. One night, despairing of all the half-read books taunting me from my shelves, I pulled down this travelogue of the highways of America, and within five pages I was hooked—and the rapture lasted all the way to the end. And then I wished the book were twice as long so I could stay in that car with McMurtry for a few more days. 

The thing I kept thinking about Roads is that Larry McMurtry never would have gotten it published if he weren’t already famous. I mean, Roads is largely one man’s musing stretched over a framework of travel, as McMurtry drives the interstates north to south and east to west and back again. But the beauty is just that—the travel is the book’s premise, but the book is also not about travel. It’s about Larry McMurtry—his opinions, his memories, his passions (just listen to him go on about his love of the Plains), and his deep, long-earned research and knowledge about the American West. It’s also about people, some that he knew and some that he never met, who lived just off this or that highway. 

But the greatest thing about Roads is that it’s a book where a brilliant writer is writing about whatever the hell he wants to write about. That was what drew me most, and it’s also why I say he probably would never have had it published if he weren’t already a Pulitzer Prize winner and famous screenwriter (The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment); in today’s marketplace, I can’t imagine a publisher would take a chance on the musings of some unknown author. But these are Larry McMurtry’s musings, and he’s so good at it; it’s like he’s just talking in the car there with you. And thank goodness he was already famous, because now we have this exquisite book that is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking, and as full of surprises as your uncle who works as a rocket scientist and also likes bats and Burmese food and Soviet trivia. It is a seriously fun, eclectic book. A very beautiful book. It renewed my love of travel writing, and a few weeks later at a library sale I picked up two more travel books and two early McMurtry novels, so it also feeds a delicious addiction. Even though I’ve now read it, Roads is again back on my shelf because I know I’ll want to dip into it again for quick bites, à la carte, of its oddly meandering, wholly satisfying essays. 

Check out part 2 in this three-part series—my mini-review of My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin.