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Literary Tourist City Guide to Houston

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Feature Article

By Nigel Beale

Christopher Hitchens died last December at Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. 

I re-read his Letters to a Young Contrarian on the flight down here.  The next day I took the light rail train from our hotel in to town. It passed by the Center.  Just seeing the place for those fleeting seconds was a very moving, emotional experience.

The relationships we establish with writers can be pretty intense. Visiting places described in their works:  where births, childhoods, marriages and deaths - real or imagined – take place, helps us to ‘connect’ with our literary heroes.  It’s hardly rational, but I know from experience that it can be very powerful.

Christopher Hitchens’s writing and public speaking touched and influenced many. It stimulated a lot of important public discussion.  Though his ties with Houston may be limited - all he did here was die - he will always be associated with the place. So will Donald Barthelme. He’s probably the best known native Houstonian writer; in addition to his playful, postmodern short fiction (Sixty Stories is his best collection) his legacy is felt in the work of graduates of the University of Houston’s renowned Creative Writing Program where he was a beloved teacher for many years. Pulitzer Prize winner William Goyen spent about twenty years in Houston; Larry McMurtry studied at Rice University and some of his early novels, Terms of Endearment and Moving On for example, are set here.  

There is however no ‘great Houston Novel,’ just a lot of good stories, many of which are told in David Theis’s Literary Houston, an anthology of writings about the place. Stories, because Houston is somewhere people come to in order to DO things, like  ‘...fly to the moon, create empires, build fortresses against cancer, and temples to surrealism’ as Theis puts it (Listen to the Literary Tourist interview here)

Native son Howard Hughes epitomizes this local narrative. The man got things done.  If Time magazine is to be believed, he built Houston’s first radio transmitter at age 11. At 12 he reportedly made himself a "motorized" bicycle.  Then all he did was become one of the world's richest men. A scratch golfer, business tycoon, movie mogul, famed aviator, notorious womanizer, obsessive-compulsive recluse - the man was larger than life - Jay Gatsby without the impoverished childhood. Howard Hughes was an intriguing, mysterious man. So much has been written about him that it makes perfect sense to give him the’ literary tourist’ treatment.   In my books, literary tourism is about connecting with what’s important to you via both the written word, and 'place'; about reading and ‘being there’. Those with a fascination for Hughes can fly into  Houston’s ‘Howard Hughes’ Airport;  they can read any number of biographies, plus Harold Robbins’s The Carpetbaggers, a page-turner said to have been inspired by Hughes’ life, or Clifford Irving ‘s hoax autobiography (Hughes sued;  Irving confessed and was sentenced to two-and-a-half year prison term, serving 17 months). They can also visit the mystery man’s grave at Glenwood Cemetery, and sleuth out the Crawford street neighborhood of his youth.  If they’d happened to have been here in June, as I was, they’d have seen a display at the Houston Public Library of Hughes memorabilia, including some fabulous movie posters and photographs. Walter Cronkite is another legitimate literary tourist target. The best loved, most trusted newscaster ever to have looked out of an American TV set also spent time in Houston.  He attended San Jacinto high school and later got a cub reporter’s job at the Houston Press.  You can read all about this in his Memoirs, excerpted in Theis’s anthology.  Rice University professor Douglas Brinkley has just written an acclaimed biography of Cronkite.  Brinkley, an author in his own right, and friend and literary executor to Hunter S. Thompson, is also, by association, covered in literary stardust.  That he’ll be at Brazos Bookstore,(strong in Art and Architecture books), one of the city’s most active reading venues, during my stay, only serves to brighten the literary tourist bulls-eye on his back.

Houston has no zoning regulations. This makes for interesting dual-purpose / mixed land use - museums next to private residences - a surprisingly pleasant feature of the city. It’s nice to walk past well groomed lawns, flower gardens and treed parks on the way, for example, to the Museum of Printing History. On hand here are lots of hands-on experiences! Using a replica of Gutenberg’s famous press you can pull your own facsimile Bible pages; there’s also a large collection of printing equipment – from authentic old platin presses, Albions, Adanas, Columbias, all the way up to the kind of Xerox machine you might find in an episode of Mad Men - these, together with a significant display of original printed documents, convey in ‘graphic terms’  the evolution of printing over the past 500 years.  There’s no charge for admission, and plenty of free parking in the vicinity.  The museum hosts regular exhibitions and offers 2-3 day printing and papermaking workshops – ideal for the visiting tourist (Listen to the Literary Tourist interview here).

Houston has been called the ‘amnesiac city’ in part because of its oft-swinging wrecking balls. Preservation of significant historical buildings has not, over the years, been a priority. So there are no writers’ houses to speak of. Few bookstores here have history longer than twenty years, let alone 500. Grahams Book Gallery, located in the Printing History Museum is one of the longest-lived. Persian rugs decorate the floors. Used and rare hardcovers line the walls. The place, as one visitor put it, ‘even smells sagacious’.

Other used bookstores worth visiting include Kaboom, where books are neatly piled in spiralling columns and monthly readings are held, and Quarter Price Books where you’ll find a shelf of well-chosen vintage editions right as you enter the store, and a not-to-be-missed James Brown doll that sings ‘I feel Good, nanananananana’ on demand. The best used bookstore in town, for my money, is Becker's. I like dishevelled, crammed-to-the ceiling-type haunts. This one doesn’t disappoint. It has as many sections as other places typically have books; there’s a labyrinth of nooks and rooms to explore. You’ll find lots of British and Texan imprints, and plenty of fiction and philosophy. Check out the rustic floor tiles too.  Very New Mexico.

Many of the streets in Houston are lined with trees, mostly Live Oaks which tend, in beautiful ways, to roof over the sky above. Rice University lies off one such street, close to downtown. Here you’ll find the Woodson Center at the Fondren Library and several important rare book collections, including the scientific library of Julian Huxley and works by Dickens illustrator George Cruikshank.  A good selection of Vale Press publications are also held here.  Published in the 1890s by noted designer, bon vivant, and Oscar Wilde confrere Charles Ricketts, these books have frequently been compared favourably to those produced by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press.

Ricketts never made it over to Houston, but famed travel writer Jan Morris did. As she writes in a piece found in Literary Houston, what most impressed her about the city was its resolve.

Perhaps because everyone here is preoccupied with doing things, Houston has been called a ‘city of the present.’ Nowhere is this more evident than in its lively literary scene.  When I asked Kristi Beer at Inprint Houston (Listen to the Literary Tourist interview here) to name the best literary stuff in town, six of her first eight answers were 'reading series'.  The nationally recognized Margaret Ruth Brown series that has been running for thirty-plus years topped the list. Past participants include John Updike, Salman Rushdie and Joan Didion. The upcoming lineup– September to April - looks exciting, with Junot Diaz, T.C. Boyle, Emma Donahue, and Zadie Smith, among others, on deck.

 The Texan air reverberates here not only with voices of the famous, but also of the new and young, many of them connected with the UH Creative Writing program. According to Beer, there’s something happening pretty well every night of the year.  Readings are held all over the city: at the Poison Girl Bar on Westheimer Street, the Brazil Restaurant, Brazos, Rice and Houston Universities…they’re everywhere.

Listening to authors is one thing, reading and discussing them is another. This is where the Great Books Council joins the frey.  Houston has one of the most active chapters in the country with some twenty clubs going at any one time. As Council president Eric Timmreck told me, meetings are open to everybody, even visiting literary tourists. All they have to do is check online to see which books are being discussed, read'em, and head on over to the nearest participating Barnes and Noble store.

 

Whether it’s uncovering the mysteries of Howard Hughes, joining in the great conversation, or just  ‘being there’  listening to the voices of today’s up-and-comers, Houston is a happening literary hub, one that deserves to be marked on the maps of all book-loving travellers with 'Texas on the mind'.

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Address: Houston, TX, US
Author(s): Donald Barthelme, Larry McMurtry, Douglas Brinkley, Justin Cronin

 

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