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What to Read Next (No. 256): The Brilliance of Lonesome Dove
Happy Friday, readers!
Christmas is quickly approaching and I wanted to share a couple things this week: 1) a short essay on the brilliance of Lonesome Dove and 2) a gift idea for the bookish people in your life.
Quick programming note: If you’re on The Big Read email list, you’ve already seen this email.
Starting January 1st, The Big Read (my online book club) will be reading and discussing Larry McMurtry’s classic western, Lonesome Dove. It won critical acclaim (including a Pulitzer) and popular acclaim alike — a combo that’s tricky to pull off. Beyond just its popularity, it reimagined not only the western genre, but American fiction as a whole.
From now through Christmas, I’m offering 20% off the first year of an annual subscription — that’s $40 instead of $50. You can purchase a gift subscription with this link:
Your bookish friend or family member or partner will get:
a detailed reading plan
weekly recaps of the reading
access to comments/discussions
a bunch of background material
TV/movie adaptation reviews from Kyle Smith (whose free newsletter you should also read)
also includes the rest of our 2023 schedule: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Haunting of Hill House, and East of Eden
If you throw in the first book or two, they’ll be even more excited.
(And don’t forget, you can also give yourself the gift of reading! The 20% discount is good for all subscriptions through Christmas!)
The Brilliance of Lonesome Dove
“I don’t want to tell you what happened. I want to tell you how it felt.” —Namwali Serpell, The Furrows
On the surface, Lonesome Dove is just a long story about a couple old dudes who move some cattle up to Montana. In the grand scheme of the plot, that’s about it. I totally get if that riveting description didn’t convince you to read it. So let me try another track.
When it comes to writing about books, it’s relatively easy to stick to the facts: plot, characters, setting, etc. That’s the impulse of many a book reviewer, myself included. We tend to tell you what books are about. It’s simpler that way.
Parsing out our feelings about books, in a readable and concise way, is a bit trickier. But it’s also more powerful to tell you how a book made me feel.
I’ve read well over 1,000 books in the last 10 years. Those that stick with me most powerfully always end up connected to a specific time and place in my life. I remember reading Thomas a Kempis in a local coffee shop on a rainy Seattle day; I’ve read When Breath Becomes Air three times, each while rocking my babies to sleep in an old rocker; I first read The Great Gatsby with a few cups of tea at a historic hotel in Estes Park, Colorado in the middle of winter.
I started Lonesome Dove on a babymoon trip to Crested Butte over Labor Day weekend in 2017. Our second kid was on the way, sapping plenty of Jane’s energy, and our first kid was with grandma, so I had plenty of uninterrupted reading time on the couch of our cozy little Airbnb rental.
Reader, to say I was sucked in is a vast understatement. The pages flew as they rarely had before (or since). I’ve only very sparingly felt as if I was literally sucked into the pages of a novel, but the way McMurtry pulled me into the dusty environs of the Hat Creek Cattle Company will forever stay with me. I had a hard time pulling myself away from it.
But, we only had a couple days away from home, so I didn’t finish its 900 pages before returning to Denver.
I continued reading while chasing a 2-year-old around the house — on the floor during playtime, sitting on the stairs (making sure he didn't tumble down), at the kitchen table when he woke up early and needed breakfast right away. Just a few days after getting home, I read the final pages on our velvety green couch and unexpectedly sobbed.
Enough pages to be a true doorstop or perhaps a booster chair, read in a flash.
I responded so emotionally to the ending because these characters — Gus and Woodrow, mainly, but plenty more too — had become my friends over the course of those hundreds of pages. McMurtry immersed me into the story so well that I was in that cattle drive up to Montana. The dialogue was crisp and perfect, the setting was just as harsh and arid as it is in real life, the relationships were so emotive and real that I couldn’t help but be utterly moved by the final direction of the story.
Yes, Lonesome Dove is about a cattle drive. But it’s about so much more under the surface! It’s about friendship and loyalty. It’s about the difference between Romantic veneer and the reality of survival (while still having a bit of a Romantic worldview anyway!). It’s about self-sufficiency, living off the land, and accepting chaotic obstacles like they’re just part of the deal of life. It’s about redemption and the heart-breaking lack thereof. It’s about accepting the vast differences in people and learning how to cultivate thriving relationships no matter those differences. It’s about change and aging and being comfortable with who are.
In this novel about some post-Civil War cowboys, we get an intimate picture of the essence of life. Lonesome Dove is fiction at its very finest.
I can’t wait to read again in January and I’d love to have you join me. Remember, from now through Christmas, get 20% off the first year when you purchase an annual subscription.
That’s all for me this week. I so appreciate the time and inbox space.