Authors: Louis L'amour
Education Of A Wandering Man
We Are Often Told That We Are What We Eat. In Our World Since The Printing Press It Might Be More Accurate To Say We Are What we read. How each of us digests what we read is a mystery. And what people really read is sometimes as puzzling as what they really think.
This book tells a surprising tale of the reading of the beloved best-selling writer Louis L'Amour. For his shaping wandering years were years of reading. When he left school in the tenth grade he began an earnest self-education stirred by a passion for books. These early working and wandering years, which took him around the world, were filled with days and nights reading. And with books happily encountered on shipboard or in the cabin of a mining camp, in Sumatra or on the China coast.
He was a lone reader but somehow never felt lonely in the company of a book. This account of his reading reminds us that little of it was done in the company of other readers, or fellow students, or with the promise, which we enjoy in settled literary company, of a lively bookish conversation. He must have been an especially vigorous self-starter and an imaginative self-rewarder.
There are quite a few surprises here for those who have only read his books but did not have the good fortune to know the lovable man himself. Anyone who visited Louis in his spacious study with its sixteen-foot-high ceiling with walls of specially designed bookshelves will not be surprised. For the bookshelves that Louis designed were much like the man himself. Each tall row of shelves made a kind of book-covered door that could be swung open to reveal another sixteen-foot set of book-filled shelves fixed to the wall behind. Louis was a modest man, slow to reveal what he really knew.
While many of us are tempted to pretend to have read what we think we should have read, Louis was not that way. For most of us Mark Twain's definition of a classic--"a book which people praise and don't read"--is accurate enough. But certainly not for Louis. In conversation he was frequently reaching for the name of the author of that book that told him something which might interest you too. Louis had a prodigious memory, which usually brought up the full correct name of the author, the title of the work, how many volumes of it there were, and often even the date of publication. Many of his vivid memories were of multivolume works like Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Sansom's History of Japan.
Not a gourmet reader, Louis was blessed with an insatiable literary appetite. He had a natural preference for books that had stood the test of time. His memory was so well stocked that he delighted in returning to browse in books that were rich in association with where he had first met them. He explains here that he does not write about sex because it is only "a leisure activity" while "I am writing about men and women who were settling a new country, finding their way through a maze of difficulties, and learning to survive despite them." Although this kindly man found it hard to express distaste or lack of sympathy for anybody, he was troubled by what seemed to him the sexual obsessions and aberrations of our time. An indefatigable, skilled storyteller, he delighted in the broad effervescent currents of experinence, he remained untinged by the ambiguities of much that he read, and he kept his own values undented.
Perhaps one reason why his book-memories were so vivid was that once his early "yondering years" were over, he traveled abroad very little.
Still, he remained an avid reader. Jealous of any time not used for writing, he luxuriated within his walls of books. His remarkable memory left him little need to refresh himself about details. As he writes in this volume, he could call up exotic places he had visited or read about without revisiting. But for three weeks each summer he would reexplore with his family some Western lands, probably as much for love of the landscape as for any other reason. He had seen and done so much during those early years chronicled here that we can understand why he might have feared that another trip would be anticlimatic, or even dull some sharp early memories.
A few years ago when I was at work on The Discoverers and trying to learn about Marco Polo, among others, I told Louis what I was about. At the time he was working on The Walking Drum and he came up at once with an astonishingly fluent and accurate critical bibliography--on the strengths and weaknesses of Yule's edition of the Travels and of the later books on Marco Polo. Then I had the pleasure of seeing his ample, well-thumbed collection of Marco Poliana neatly shelved on the walls of his study.
Still, as this volume reveals, Louis was anything but a systematic reader. A spec- tacularly serendipitous reader, he enlists us in the joys of random reading--from Schliermacher's Soliloquies, Boswell's Johnson, Bertrand Russell's Marriage and Morals, Eric Hoffer's True Believer, Gregg's Commerce of the Prairies to Roger Baldwin's Liberty under the Soviets--with an occasional dip into George Santayana, Joseph Conrad, and Rabindranath Tagore and some frolics by the way in Baudelaire's poems, Claude McKaye's Harlem Shadows, Frank Dobie's Longhorns, Polybius' histories, and Voltaire's Candide. Good, bad, or indifferent, fiction or nonfiction, classic or ephemera--all were grist for his mill! But unlike many self-educated men and other good storytellers, Louis was a good listener, as eager to learn from the spoken as from the printed word.
Obviously there are advantages to programmed reading that cannot be secured in any other way. Louis, by force of circumstances and from a passion for books, sought and found other advantages. He enjoyed and was stirred by countless unprogrammed juxtapositions--the fate of the Incas and of the Roman Empire, Shakespeare's sonnets, Jack London's tales and Plato's dialogues. He could quote Robert W.
Service and William Butler Yeats, Rudyard Kipling and Percy Bysshe Shelley and Oscar Wilde in the same breath. For he was utterly without intellectual snobbery or cultural pretensions.
So Louis never worried about whether a book "fitted in" to his reading program.
To be a book gave it dignity enough--a claim on his time and attention, and on his patience for the author's weaknesses.
The love of books made him--like any other lover--sometimes excessively charitable to his authors. And this, too, made him rare among copious readers. In this volume you will find enthusiasm, excitement, and gratitude to the whole miscellany of authors ancient and modern, East and West. That was Louis's way --to find or squeeze something of value from every printed page.
He was lucky in his times. It happened that the 1930's, which he chronicles in this volume, was an especially fertile time for American publishing--F. N. Doubleday, Max Schuster, Alfred Knopf, Bennett Cerf, among others, not to mention the Haldeman Julius little blueback books and the Modern Library. The Book-of-the-Month Club and The Literary Guild and others were disseminating good books in new ways, the Great Books were filtering down. It was an age of serious best sellers, a good age for desultory reading.
Louis gives us a lesson--too seldom offered by academic or professional critics --in open-mindedness and literary charity. And he encourages us, too, to become Wandering Readers, joining his search for the joys and surprises in the pages of books.
It was May 14. In a few days my class back in Jamestown, North Dakota would be graduating from high school, and I was in Singapore.
The date is one of the few I know from those knockab years, simply because I had the good sense to write it on the inside cover of a book I bought at the shop of Muhammed Dulfakir on the corner of High Street.
The book was Kipling's Departmental Ditties, and my reason for buying it was that I had forgotten a line or two from a poem I liked to recite, "The Ballad of Fisher's Boarding House."
During those years I often recited poetry in bunkhouses in mining or lumber camps, and in ship's fo'c'sles. It was usually the verse of Robert W. Service or Rudyard Kipling, but there was a lot of poetry floating around written for, and often by, the kind of men we were, occasionally printed but usually passed from memory to memory.
On that day several of my shipmates had gathered around a table or two in the Maypole Bar, a place no doubt long forgotten. Such men as "Hans, the blue-eyed Dane" of Kipling's poem would have known it, and probably British soldiers stationed in town. It was a nondescript bar, convenient to the waterfront.
This is not the story of how I came to be in Singapore. That will be told elsewhere. This is a story of an adventure in education, pursued not under the best of conditions. The idea of education has been so tied to schools, universities, and professors that many assume there is no other way, but education is available to anyone within reach of a library, a post office, or even a newsstand.
Today you can buy the Dialogues of Plato for less than you would spend on a fifth of whiskey, or Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for the price of a cheap shirt. You can buy a fair beginning of an education in any bookstore with a good stock of paperback books for less than you would spend on a week's supply of gasoline.
Often I hear people say they do not have time to read. That's absolute nonsense. In the one year during which I kept that kind of record, I read twenty-five books while waiting for people. In offices, applying for jobs, waiting to see a dentist, waiting in a restaurant for friends, many such places. I read on buses, trains, and planes. If one really wants to learn, one has to decide what is important. Spending an evening on the town? Attending a ball game? Or learning something that can be with you your life long?
Byron's Don Juan I read on an Arab dhow 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. It was in the library of a sort of YMCA for seamen, the name of which I've forgotten but which any British sailor of the time would remember, for the British had established them in many ports, for sailors ashore.
At that time I could no more than skim the James Tod book, reading only a few chapters before I was off to sea again. But a few years ago I located a secondhand copy in a bookstore in Greenwich Village and it now rests on a shelf in my own library, a source for several planned books.
A great book begins with an idea; a great life, with a determination.
My life may not be great to others, but to me it has been one of steady progression, never dull, often exciting, often hungry, tired, and lonely, but always learning. Somewhere back down the years I decided, or my nature decided for me, that I would be a teller of stories.
Decisions had to be made and there was nobody but me to make them. My course altered a number of times but never deviated from the destination I had decided upon. Whether this was altogether a matter of choice I do not know. Perhaps my early reading and the storytelling at home had preconditioned me for the role I adopted.
Somewhere along the line I had fallen in love with learning, and it became a lifelong romance. Early on I discovered it was fun to follow along the byways of history to find those treasures that await any searcher.
It may be that all later decisions followed naturally from that first one.
One thing has always been true: That book or that person who can give me an idea or a new slant on an old idea is my friend.
And there have been many such.
Right here I wish to say that what follows is not an autobiography, although no doubt these materials are a piece of the final picture, which I hope to undertake later.
As can be guessed from the title, this book is about education, but not education in the accepted sense.
No man or woman has a greater appreciation for schools than I, although few have spent less time in them. No matter how much I admire our schools, I know that no university exists that can provide an education; what a university can provide is an outline, to give the learner a direction and guidance. The rest one has to do for oneself.
If I were asked what education should give, I would say it should offer breadth of view, ease of understanding, tolerance for others, and a background from which the mind can explore in any direction.