Book Review: Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour

Title: Education of a Wandering Man
Author: Louis L’Amour
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Bantam
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from my personal library
First line: It was May 14.

This review was previously posted on my personal blog on January 29, 2007.

Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour should be required reading for all book-lovers, teachers, homeschooling parents, homeschooled teens – anyone who values books and education.

I am very familiar with Louis L’Amour’s work. My dad had the complete, leather-bound collection of his western novels, and I read many of them when I was in junior high and high school. My favorite book of his is, by far, The Walking Drum, which wasn’t a western, but a 12th century adventure novel. In spite of having read so many of his books, I had no idea that Mr. L’Amour was such an autodidact.

This book is a rambling memoir of his travelling years and the books that accompanied him along the way. He dropped out of school at age 15 at the beginning of the depression. He spent the next years of his life wandering the world as a merchant marine, boxer, logger, miner – you name it, he probably did it. But just because his formal education in school had ended, he did not stop learning. No matter where he was living, he found a library or bookseller – sometimes skipping meals and sleeping outdoors in order to fund his book habit. The list of books he read is astounding – books on every topic imaginable. He was especially interested in history and sought out source materials wherever he could find them. L’Amour’s memoir confirms the idea that the time for education in a person’s life need never end. As long as we read

L’Amour on reading:

“It is often said that one has but one life to live, but that is nonsense. For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography, and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.”

“I think the greatest gift anyone can give to another is the desire to know, to understand. Life is not for simply watching spectator sports, or for taking part in them; it is not for simply living from one working day to the next. Life is for delving, discovering, learning. Today, one can sit in the comfort of his own home and explore any part of the world or even outer space through books. They are all around us, offering such riches as can scarcely be believed. Also, I might add, having done both, it is better to sit in comfort with a cold drink at hand and read the tale than to actually walk out of the Mojave Desert as I did.”

“Often I am sad that our interests have turned away from the short story, for so many beautiful and great stories have been written and are now on the back shelf of the world’s literature. The writing of a really fine short story is like the carving of a gem. I have written many but none of the quality to which I aspire. Over the years I have collected many which I have enjoyed, and still enjoy.

Looking back over my years of reading, I am amazed at how much really wonderful stuff there is out there, and it is a pity that anyone should deprive himself of the chance to read it, yet many do. Ours is not a leisurely time, and our readers prefer page-turners, stories or other books that lead one eagerly from page to page. It is also important, to those for who reading is difficult, to have books that demand one read on, and on.

Yet many of the great books of the past were written for a more leisurely time, when people could sit and read by the fire, or comfortably in some great country house or cottage. Despite the fact that they were written for a different time and different audience, they have much to offer: great stories, brilliant characterizations, interesting ideas. Someone has said that one has no right to read the new books unless one has read the old. I do not agree, yet one should read the old books also.”

“Knowledge is like money: To be of value it must circulate, and in circulating it can increase in quantity and, hopefully, in value.

Who remembers the millionaires of the past? Who even remembers the popular heroes? But we do remember a poor stonecutter in Athens named Socrates, a thief from the gutters of Paris named Francois Villon, an actor in London called Shakespeare, a poor farmer in Scotland named Robert Burns, and a weaver in Mayilapur who wrote the Kural.

Upon the shelves of our libraries, the world’s greatest teachers await our questions.

Yet for those who have not been readers, my advice is to read what entertains you. Reading is fun. Reading is adventure. It is not important what you read at first, only that you read.

Many would advise the great books first, but often readers are not prepared for them. If you want to study the country from which you came, there are atlases with maps and there are good books on all countries, books of history, of travel, of current affairs.

Our libraries are not cloisters for an elite. They are for the people, and if they are not used, the fault belongs to those who do not take advantage of their wealth. If one does not move on from what merely amuses to what interests, the fault lies in the reader, for everything is there.”

On bookstores:

“Bookstores were fewer than today, when paperback books are everywhere. There were many wonderful old bookstores operated by people who both knew and loved books, and to browse their shelves was and is pure delight.

It is not uncommon today to find no one working in a bookstore who reads anything but the current best sellers, if that much. In the days I speak of, bookstores were usually operated by book lovers. Now they are run by anyone who can ring up a sale. Yet there are exceptions, and to come upon them is always a pleasure.”

On politics:

“Unthinking people often despise politicians, but if we do not have the best people in politics, it is our own fault. Politics is the art of making civilization work.

Many young people despise compromise, but without it, the world would come to a standstill. If I cannot have my way and you cannot have yours, perhaps there is a middle ground we can both accept. It is as simple as that, and every day of our lives we are compromising in every possible way, adjusting and adapting to what needs to be done.

If one is not well informed on what is happening in our world today, an individual can only blame him or herself, for information is available everywhere. Bias can and does slip through, so one should not listen exclusively to one television news source or read the editorials of but one newspaper.

To make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not simply observers. One who does not vote has no right to complain.”

On writing:

“There are so many wonderful stories to be written, and so much material to be used. When I hear people talking of writer’s block, I am amazed.

Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on. You can sit and look at a page for a long time and nothing will happen. Start writing and it will.”

“Many people have the idea that a writer of stories should live in the area of which he writes, but if he knows his subject matter, he carries it with him wherever he goes. Much of my life has been spent in deserts and mountains; much of what I have seen I remember. Sitting here now, I can close my eyes and see the desert in all its many aspects. There is no need to see it again, although I often shall, nor is there need to go to the mountains, for the mountains are with me always. I have walked the high country; I have breathed its air, bedded down under its trees, watched the white clouds drift and the storm clouds gather. Far away I have seen dust-devils do their weird dance and I have heard the pelting rain on the trees above me.

I remember the decks of ships where I have walked, the feel of the wheel in my hands, the drip of water from yellow oilskins, and I have heard the crash of great trees coming down in the forest One does not have to live among these things to remember them, and I do. They were and are a part of me.”

“Often, ambitious young men or women write, wanting to work for me or assist me in my research. What they do not understand is that it is a labor love, and I would relinquish no part of it at any price. I do not need help. I need time.

I am jealous of these things. I want to read the books, examine the archives, trace the routes upon maps or charts. As I trace the routes I relive the lives; I walk with the caravans; I handle canvas on the ships; I pull an oar in the galleys. I know the smells of the sea because I have been there, and a thousand years ago they would have been no different. I know how it feels to ride a horse or a camel, and I want to live again with the caravans and the seafarers.

Each book I write is an adventure in itself. It is many adventures, into strange lands, strange places. It can be on the land of my own ranch, among the forests there, along the rugged ridges. Suddenly, as I weave the story, they are no longer just as I see them but are as they would have been one hundred, five hundred years earlier. They are places of enchantment, places where stories are born.

I am not some mill that grinds out stories simply to make a living. I am a man who loves to tell stories, who loves to share what he has seen and where history has been. I would like others to enjoy, as I have, the ancient towns and the old streets, the broken arches, the clock towers, the fallen walls where old smells linger, even after thousands of years.

I do not know if others feel as I do, nor do I care. I am a teller of stories with my own corner in the marketplace, and I speak of those long gone. In our country and elsewhere many men and women have added their dust to the earth and have been forgotten, but not by me. I have walked in their footsteps, seen the ruins of the houses they so carefully put together. I have seen their fingerprints in the clay, and sometimes in ancient caves I have seen a full hand-print on the wall, to show, perhaps, that they, too had hands, that they, too, could shape the mortar of their lives into something more than it had been.”

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