Larry McMurtry’s New Myth of the Old West

(Reblog of ALEXANDRA ALTER’s article for wsj.com)

Book Towers

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Stacking books has been a long tradition and necessary tool of those wanting to organize, carry or build.  Build???  Well if you’ve ever spent time in Detroit, you may have looked up to see the Book Tower, a stunning 38-story skyscraper in the Washington Boulevard Historic District.  Unfortunately the tower was not made of books, but rather named after three brothers, J. Burgess, Frank, and Herbert Book determined to turn the Detroit’s Washington Boulevard into the “Fifth Avenue of the West”.

Lucky for us though, in 2011 Buenos Aires was named World Book Capital by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.  What better way to celebrate than build a spiraling tower built with over 30,000 donated books.  Artist Marta Minujin designed the Tower of Babel, as she named it, creating the installation 25-meters high.  Although the shelf life of the tower was only a month, when it was time to take the sculpture down visitors were encouraged to pick out a book and take it home with them.  Now that’s an idea worth building upon.

photo credits: UpNorth Memories – Donald (Don) Harrison & Guillermo Puglia via photopin cc

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Screening Room: ‘Books: A Documentary’

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Chris Barsanti

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This is the killer Kickstarter pitch for a new proposed film project with the can’t-go-wrong title of Books: A Documentary:

This past August over 300,000 antiquarian books from Larry McMurtry’s Booked Up were sold at auction: This is the story of those Books.

Color us intrigued.

For those not already in awe of the man, Lonesome Dove and Brokeback Mountain author McMurtry also owns one of the nation’s great used-book emporiums. He told the tale of last fall’s great blowout sale at the New York Review of Books.

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According to Publishers Weekly, the filmmakers (husband-and-wife Sara Ossana and Mathew Provost) have already shot about half of the doc and need $50,000 to finish it up. Ossana notes that the film, which uses McMurtry’s sale to explore the modern book landscape, might be expected to be a downbeat tale about an industry and way of life in decline:

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The Last Book Scout…

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The world of the book scout is a changing landscape.  The very technology that seemingly threatens to submerge it has recently switched polarity and infused it with an unexpected resurgence.  The renaissance may be short lived, as the overall trend has shown book scouting to have gone from a popular pastime to an obscure practice.  What was once a busy profession abounding with hordes of enthusiasts, has turned into an archaic vocation kept alive by a handful of skilled connoisseurs.  Recently however, they have been joined by an influx of pickers armed with digital scanners, smart phones and online book selling savvy.

An old school book scout would scour classified ads for estate sales, garage sales, library sales and yard sales, paying particular attention to how they each were worded.  He, or she was wary of ads using the word “treasures” which translated to “junk” and kept a sharp eye out for buzz phrases like “English grad student moving” or “Philosophy professor passed away” which could have spelled pay dirt.  Armed with a vast knowledge of books from a lifetime of reading and a finely tuned intuition for locating quality print, they set out for these sales.  The goal: to unearth gems among the rubble, to buy them cheap and then sell them for profit.

One such man is none other than author Larry McMurtry, who explains having embarked on a career as a novelist in order to support his book buying habit.  He is the central figure in the upcoming indie film by Studio Seven7 Films called Books: A Documentary.  The film by Sara Ossana and myself tells the story of the three hundred thousand plus, of Larry McMurtry’s antiquated acquisitions that were auctioned off in August of 2012.  The event, which lasted just two days, was aptly named The Last Book Sale.  This historic occasion marks the culmination of forty years of Larry’s work as a book scout, and two thirds of what was amassed, being released back out into the world.

The auction no doubt drew book scouts cut from the same cloth as the proprietor of the four Booked Up storefronts in Archer City, Texas.  However, there was also a new breed of book buyer lurking about among the paperbacks and first editions.  The 21st century literary curator still combs through the classifieds for listings of book sales, but they rely more on technical gadgetry than upon applicable knowledge to cull profits from the piles of pages.  They use a handheld electronic scanner to weed through many volumes in one day, looking for titles that can be sold for profit.  Their scanner runs a book’s UPC code across a snapshot of the Amazon catalog.  The software then calculates the book’s worth.  Books with a high value are bought if a low price can be arranged and then re-sold online.  Many rare books are pre-UPC, where scanning a code is not an option.  In this case, they then pull out a smart-phone, loaded with latest apps and booked marked websites, and with a few clicks, now has all the information needed.

Similar to the world of baseball, an old-school scout would simply have taken the findings, cross referenced with years of gut instinct and stuffed notebooks, to bookstores or private collectors they had built relationships with over the years.  The new school scout harnesses the power of the internet, which although impersonal, has not necessarily cheapened the trade.  Online book reselling is highly competitive because there is money to be made.  This current model is a recent improvement on what was being done just a few years ago.  Before electronic scanners, new school book scouts had to use their cell phones to call friends or partners who were waiting at computers to look up titles that may have been valuable.  This resurgence in the popularity of old books is a refreshing development.  Perhaps the digital world will not yet fully render the analog world of information obsolete.

However, this begs the question: what improvements on the current strategy might the book scout of tomorrow employ?  Perhaps tomorrow’s book scout will find a title, scan it and take a picture of it all at once.  They could then post it online, find a buyer and collect the money digitally before ever paying for it and leaving the store.  Perhaps when teleportation is an everyday practice the process will go one step further and the scout will beam the book over to the buyer right then and there.  Sounds like a plot to a futuristic novel…

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The Top 5 Cities for Pop-up Libraries Across America

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The world is more mobile now with smart sensors and wearable technology embedding themselves into every aspect of our lives.  As a result, people are increasingly rediscovering the original mobile device – the book.  It’s completely secure, doesn’t mind being dropped and never runs out of power.  As Ray Bradbury pointed out, it can even survive temperatures up to 450 degrees F.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, we have begun to see the real world equivalent of the ubiquitous app store is something called a “pop-up library.”  People who love books are transforming vestigial cultural icons into mini-libraries for the exchange of books.  In the Netherlands, a shipping container has become a friendly green children’s library.  In Bulgaria, a trolly bus has transformed into a book nook with 600 books and cozy chairs for reading.  Perhaps the most poignant example is Argentina’s Weapon of Mass Instruction, a tank filled with books as a mobile library and cultural commentary.

Pop up libraries like these are appearing all over the US as well, as another generation discovers just how cool books are.  Here are five of the more ambitious projects in cities across the country.

1. New York – When you hear the name John Locke, do you think of the 17th century English philosopher or Jack’s mystical antagonist on ‘Lost’?  Actually, he is also an architect who has built pop up libraries in abandoned New York phone booths.  Locke’s project is open ended but his site points out that there are almost 14,000 pay phone booths in NYC.  No one knows where books will be popping up next.

2. Orlando – Even smaller cities like Florida’s Amusement City have been dabbling in displays of books as sharable art.  The Corridor Project installed boxes of books all over the city for residents to “take it or leave it.”  Is it art or public service?  It doesn’t have to be a choice.

3. Chicago – The “Second City” hasn’t been second in size or population for a long time, but it is right behind New York in terms of pop up libraries.  The Chicago Underground Library has launched popups all over the city, with displays of printed treasures going back more than 100 years.

4. Austin – Texas represents the past in terms of cattle drives and outlaws, but Austin is a different animal.  Thanks to the University of Texas, Austin has become a little Hollywood and mini-Silicon Valley.  At the annual SXSW festival, Austin has introduced new technology like Twitter and Foursquare.  Popups of all kinds, including popup libraries, have been a staple at SXSW for years.

5. San Francisco – Newspaper stands are another rapidly disappearing cultural artifact as print has moved online.  Once a day is too slow for the contemporary news cycle, so newspaper stands have been converted into pop up libraries by the San Francisco Public Library.

If you’ve been to any of these pop up libraries or have plans to start one in your own city, we’d love to hear about your experience.

~ Mathew

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photo credit: docpop via photopin cc

Top 5 Must-See Romantic Film Adaptations

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Prince William and Kate Middleton have just had their first child, George Alexander Louis, but you may address the baby as ‘His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge’.  Everyone loves to hear about a Royal Romance, doesn’t it just get you in the mood to watch some breathtaking romantic films based on books?  I know you answered yes!  Here is our top five must see Romantic film adaptations.

The Notebook (2004)

When you think of romantic movies, The Notebook always comes to mind.  Based on Nicholas Sparks’ novel of the same name, you can’t help but fall in love with the characters Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) and Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams).  Although their love story is an intense one, the ending is the perfect payoff.  If you haven’t seen this flick already, go find it today, just make sure you have a box of tissues ready nearby.

The African Queen (1951)

Based on C.S. Forester’s novel, The African Queen, is an exciting adventure-romance starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.  The film has been selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry, for its culture, historical, & aesthetic significance.  On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie holds a 100% fresh rating.  Have I convinced you to watch it yet?  You really should.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

If you watched the Oscars this year, you already know that Silver Linings Playbook received eight nominations, with Jennifer Lawrence winning Best Actress.  Adapted from Matthew Quick’s novel, the film was written and directed by David O. Russell.  In order to maintain the romantic comedy, yet emotional and troubled nature of the story, Russell claims to have rewritten the screenplay over twenty times.  Go see/read it for yourself and find out if the movie did the novel justice.

Wuthering Heights (1939)

In 1847, Emily Brontë’s published her only novel, Wuthering Heights.  Emily’s sister, Charlotte, made the decision for Wuthering Heights to be published after the success of her own novel Jane Eyre.  The novel revolves around the destruction that jealousy and vengeance can cause on individuals and their communities.  The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning Best Cinematography.  So, if you’re in the mood for some romantic vengeance, check this one out!

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

The infamous story of Pride & Prejudice was published in 1813, written by Jane Austen.  The well-known love story begins with the introduction of Mr. Darcy, a proud and condescending man, and his conflicting relationship with Elizabeth Bennet.  The film, written by Deborah Moggach, strived to remain as faithful to the novel as possible.  The movie had a positive critical reaction with Kiera Knightly portraying Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew Macfadyen as her romantic opposite.  If you are looking for a classic love story, draped across the stunning English country side, this will sure to please.

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The business of imagination

A life long Connecticut resident, Brian Trent, was born in Waterbury CT, once nicknamed ‘Brass-City’ for it’s manufacture of watches and clocks through the first half of the 20th century.  Since his earliest memory, Brian has had a life long fascination with discovering how the world and space ‘tick’.  A passion, he most likely picked up from spending time his family, also science fiction fans.

This past April, Brian Trent was honored by Writers of the Future in Hollywood for his story “War Hero”.  We asked him to write about his experience.

Trent-BlogI had been writing stories since childhood, scribbling adventure tales on stacks of yellow legal pads. For my sixth birthday my parents bought me a typewriter (a metallic blue Brother 11) and my way of thanking them was to incessantly pound out stories late into the night like an over caffeinated drummer. Then I’d mail these stories to prospective magazines; since my penmanship resembles a cross between drunken cuneiform and double-exposed Chinese calligraphy, I can’t be sure how many ultimately reached their destinations.

Flash-forward to 2012. I wrote “War Hero” on my computer, which is quieter than my typewriter and doesn’t jam if I type too fast (although most of the white lettering has long since worn off of the keys; I still type like other people drum.) I mailed the story to the Writers of the Future Contest, one of the most prestigious competitions of the genre, and waited. Half of the struggle in this business is learning to wait.

In December, I get the phone call: “Mr. Trent? I’m calling to let you know that your story has just been selected as a winner in the 29th Annual Writers of the Future Contest.”  Ah! I could finally justify to my parents the many nights I kept them up with the clack-clack-clack of my typewriter!  In April, I was flown out to Hollywood, taken through an exquisite week-long writing workshop, met the luminaries of the field, and got to give an acceptance speech.

I first sat down to write “War Hero” in order to explore an idea:  If minds can be uploaded and downloaded at will, how does that change the face of war?  What if the war criminal you’re tracking can literally be anyone, and you’re never really sure if you’ve eliminated the last copy?  To be sure, mind-uploading is a theme I’ve explored before (Apex Magazine’s latest issue features my story “A Matter of Shape-space” which also tackles this prickly issue) but “War Hero” took the concept and galloped straight into an especially grisly lair of ideas.

Whether grisly or not, ideas are the fuel behind all fiction.  Ideas are what kept my six-year-old self up late at night, hammering out tales of exotic places and possible futures.  Ideas are what books communicate across generations and civilizations, from stone tablet to electronic tablet, from yellow legal pad to whatever we’ll be using tomorrow.  What WILL we be using tomorrow?

Time to explore another idea…

Brian Trent
Read War Hero – Here
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A movie about books

Books is a feature film documentary directed and produced by Mathew Provost and Sara Ossana of Studio Seven7 Films coming soon.

I grew up with writers in my family, as a result, books have always been a big part of my life.  I first started visiting Booked Up in Archer City when I was 11 years old.  I still remember the stillness and silence of the stacks, the smell of the books and endless possibilites as I spent hours leafing through and reading books on my favorite subjects: Photography, Fashion, Travel and Design.

When Larry told me that he was planning on auctioning off over 2/3 of his inventory over 2 days, I knew that we had to document this once-in-a-lifetime event.  As I spoke with Mathew about the inevitability of the auction, initially we were both sad,  this was seemingly the end of an era.  Larry expressed excitement about the auction and felt that it was not an end but a new beginning for these thousands of books, a way for young bookstores to replenish their inventory or start anew.  A kind of diaspora of the years of acquiring his massive collection of rare, used and scholarly books.  This mass exodus of books was feeding the book stream.

Larry has a life-long history with books, both writing and collecting them, and this is our ode to him.  Books is not only the story of the Last Book Sale but is also the story of the books themselves; what they represent and their value to those around them.  We hope you will follow us on this journey as we finish the film and share the story of Books with the world.

Sara & Mathew

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