A local used bookstore went out of business around Christmas time. I was saddened , but I took advantage of the low, low prices to grab … well ... everything. Christmas books for all!
Among the finds I kept for myself was Education of a Wandering Man, cowboy writer Louis L’Amour’s memoir. Published by Bantam in 1989 (a year after the writer’s death), it’s L’Amour’s account of the life he led while learning to be a writer and, more importantly, the books that taught him about words and story forms.
As an adventure tale, Education of a Wandering Man lacks the drama of Into Thin Air and books like it. L’Amour left home at sixteen to become a hobo, wandering hither and yon in search of work. The jobs (merchant seaman, bare-knuckle boxer, cattle skinner, mine minder) are not especially thrilling, and L’Amour doesn’t go into them in detail. Instead he focuses on the books he read along the way, listing them by title (when he remembers them) and talking about what he learned from them.
“Byron’s Don Juan I read on an Arab jhow sailing north from Aden up the Red Sea to Port Tewfik on the Suez Canal. Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson I read while broke and on the beach in San Pedro. In Singapore, I came upon a copy of The Annals and Antiquities of Rajahstan by James Tod.” (Education of a Wandering Man, page two.)
L’Amour committed poems to memory and recited them around hobo campfires to entertain his fellow travelers. In every port and town, the first stop he made was the local library. Eventually, after filling his head with words, he tried to write his own stories. His first published short story appeared in a nudie magazine. Then he broke into the pulps. In the end, L’Amour wrote eighty-nine novels, more than 250 short stories, and sold more than 320 million copies of his work.
There was no rhyme or reason to L’Amour’s reading. If he found a book, he read it. There’s a nice appendix in the back of Education of a Wandering Man where L’Amour lists all the books and plays he read from 1930 to 1935 and 1937. The list starts with Three Philosophical Poets by George Santayana, hops from The War in the Air by H.G. Wells to Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and ends with The Checkered Years by Mary Boyrton Carody.
L’Amour left formal education early, but praised it for its ability to give people the tools they need for life-long learning. “[Education] should equip a person to live life well, to understand what is happening about him, for to live life well one must live with awareness.” (Education of a Wandering Man, page 5.)\
For a student, the memoir shows that education is something that must be pursued rather than handed out. Broadening the mind is an active process, one than can only happen through search and seeking, reading and reflection. For a writer, L’Amour’s story is a craft lesson in the importance of reading widely and well.