Larry McMurtry, a Dictionary, and Me

Recalling a pivotal purchase from the late author’s long-ago DC bookstore.

Larry McMurtry, a Dictionary, and Me

Unintentionally, Larry McMurtry changed my life. It was not through a book he wrote, rather through a book he sold.

In the early 1970s, I loved spending time in his remarkable bookstore in Washington, DC. Called Booked Up, it occupied a storefront and a second-floor annex on the corner of 31st and M streets in exclusive Georgetown. By then, McMurtry was known for his 1966 The Last Picture Show, a coming-of-age novel. Terms of Endearment and, of course, Lonesome Dove were still to come. He considered himself a bookseller with a writing avocation.

At age 19, I had aspirations to be a writer. I read somewhere that a necessary tool was a particular dictionary, specifically the second — not the third — edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary. The third edition contained definitions based on usage. The second was the last of its kind (except for the venerated Oxford English Dictionary) to provide prescriptive definitions.

I came to McMurtry’s store in search of this linguistic holy grail. I was in luck. Like a used-car salesman, McMurtry detailed the features of the second edition he had in stock. The 18-pound dictionary, wrapped in a brown-gold cloth cover with embossed leather, ran more than 3,300 pages and conveniently had indentations cut in for the letters of the alphabet, easing the task of looking up a word. I could have it for $75.

I carried it home (it’s not light, mind you). Then I ordered a wooden dictionary stand from a Vermont firm. It came as a kit, which I assembled and stained.

For several decades, I treasured this dictionary. I made it a habit whenever I looked up a word to read the definitions of other words on the page. That idea was inspired by one of my high school English teachers, who assigned us lists of words to look up and required us to report on the entries before and after each word. Completing the assignment, I made two discoveries (certainly ones he hoped we’d make). First, when I read one definition, I found I’d been incorrectly using a word I thought I knew. Second, I found dictionaries can make for some interesting reading. The resulting precision and expanded vocabulary helped in my developing into a writer.

I returned often to McMurtry’s store after that. My $75 contribution to its till meant I was not an aimless browser but a buyer. McMurtry would give me the key to the annex — really an old apartment up an outside rickety metal staircase — where I could quietly (and unsupervised) peruse books to my heart’s content. I’m sure I wasn’t the only customer who was given the key, but it gave me a sense of privilege, like being a member of an exclusive literary society. I often took home paper bags full of wonderful finds.

I don’t remember if McMurtry had someone else working in the store because he always packed my bags and took my cash himself. I was ignorant of the fact that he was an author, especially one of such distinction. To me, he was a bookseller willing to take seriously a teenager’s bibliophilic passion.

Over the intervening years, as I discovered I could tap into a decent electronic dictionary on my computer, I rose less frequently from my desk to walk over to my cherished Webster’s. Then, one day, I donated the dictionary to a book sale during one of my frequent, feverish moments of wanting to lighten the burden of owning too much stuff. My occasional pangs of regret are soothed by the thought that someone else now cherishes it the way I once did.

James McGrath Morris is author of Tony Hillerman: A Life, as well as The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War and several other biographies, including the New York Times bestselling Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press and Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power. He has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered, PBS’ News Hour, and C-Span’s Book TV. He was the founding editor of the monthly Biographer’s Craft and has served as both the executive director and president of Biographers International Organization. Morris lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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