Education of a Wandering Man – Book Review

It has been a long time since I last wrote a book review. Not because I haven’t read books in the years since, but because it becomes more difficult each year to find a new book I wish to talk about. And this one was written by an old man at the end of his life. But when that old man is Louis L’Amour, you then hold in your hands a lifetime of wisdom, adventure, and inspiration.

Education of a Wandering Man is L’Amour’s memoir published the year after he died. He barely finished it, dying in 1988 and the book published in 1989. Louis L’Amour was 80. The style of his writing is youthful, and the wisdom it contains is timeless.

L’Amour is thought to be a “Western” author. A guy who wrote about the old West, cowboys and Indians. True. But not the whole story. He also wrote about the sea, the far east, Russia, Arabs, sailing dhows and deserts. He knew these places and the characters who inhabited them from personal experience. As the title of his memoir suggests, Louis L’Amour was a wandering man. He differed from many other wandering men because he had a keen and curious mind that absorbed much of what he saw and experienced, creating a reservoir of excitement, the telling of which created a body of work nearly unprecedented in all the world.

He was born in Jamestown, North Dakota, not far as the crow flies from where I grew up in West Central Minnesota. The country and climate aren’t all that different either, and he was two years older than my father who shared the same wandering spirit as L’Amour, and I like to think that during the Great Depression they might have shared a bread crust around a hobo campfire somewhere in the West.

If there is a theme to L’Amour’s memoir it’s education. Not the education we think of in schools, textbooks, and lecture halls. But the education of experiencing the world firsthand, unpolished and dangerous. A world of fist and knife, hunger, poverty and determination. The Education of a Wandering Man is even more exciting and charged with action than a Louis L’Amour novel or short story. I couldn’t put this book down for long, or stop talking about it.

L’Amour credited his travel experiences for much of his education, but books effected him more. He read in boxcars and ditches, at sea in weathered old freighters, on the desert, in the mountains and across the far east. Reading was the one thing he did regardless of his circumstances or location. It became the “education” part of his writing and who he was as a man. When he had money he would rent a cheap room near a library so he could hold up and read after a day’s work. In his memoir he lists many of the books he read, especially during the Great Depression.

When I read this list it was humbling. Granted, I had read some of these books and authors, but compared to L’Amour I was barely beginning. I would like to excuse that because times have changed. But that’s a poor reason. Education isn’t the same as schooling. For the most part in America today schooling is a waste of time and money. Very little is learned in school and most of that could be acquired much faster if parents had enough time or talent to teach their children, but unfortunately most of them received a similar schooling. And of course the last people on earth who should be involved in anything as important as education – politicians – are running a  sideshow they are unequipped to understand. And like always, spending billions and getting nothing in return; then bragging about the results.

Louis L’Amour quit school in the 10th grade, wandered the world for years, simultaneously reading hundreds of books, many of which are listed in the Bibliography of his memoir. The names of many authors come up again and again but one that impressed me was Shakespeare – who I thought would be the last person a young man would read. Granted, this was in the 1930s when many Americans still understood English and “American” with all its slang and slurred contractions, wasn’t all they knew. The wisdom, depth and humor of the world’s greatest writers, is disappearing and no longer recognized as vital to education.

I had a pig farmer’s son in my high school English class once who objected strenuously to reading Shakespeare and others like him. He told me he was going to raise pigs and make a lot of money and he doubted he would be quoting any Shakespearian sonnets to them. My answer to him was rather lame. I said if he didn’t learn how to read properly how could he read the Pig Owner’s Gazette or whatever pig raisers read? He rolled his eyes. Maybe rightly so, since I should have said “When you’re shoveling all that pig manure you just might appreciate something more uplifting, like a Shakespearian sonnet.”

In Education of a Wandering Man, L’Amour makes the point over and over, that reading, that books, are essential. Not something you read once in awhile. Not a chore, or burden. Not a thing to avoid but a thing to fall in love with. He talks of the shape, sizes and texture of books. How they fit in his pockets and what is was like to leave them behind. He talks of the thousands of books in his own private library. A gold mine.

L’Amour did work as a miner. He spent time alone on the deserts of the West. He dug holes, worked in the heat and froze on desert nights, often describing himself as a manual laborer. But the real gold was in books he read. Reading and learning was his precious metal. But I couldn’t help but conclude that it wasn’t just the books themselves, but his desire to be educated by them, and because of what they shared with him, he came to love them.

And, of course, he came to write them. Many of them. And they were, and are, read by hundreds of millions of people. Not bad for a high school drop out.

Louis L’Amour was born in 1908, and very much a 20th Century man. But we are people of the 21st Century and much has changed, nothing any more than books, or lack of them. Our age is electronic and we are too often enthralled by it, though we understand that electronic words do not exist in any real sense. They are images and have no ink or paper. Books must be destroyed by physical means but electronic images only need to be deleted. Our history, our lives, a click away from oblivion.

I have a dusty box of music on cassette tapes. Some are broken like the cassette player itself. The music is silent. And I have a book on tape – Rookery Blues – read by  Jon Hassler, the author. Luckily, I also have the book, and it functions just as well today as it did in September, 1995 when Jon gave it to me and wrote a few words of encouragement inside. Louis L’Amour was right about books – without them our past is subject to deletion. Forever lost, or learned over again and again.

(Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour, Bantam, 1989. It’s an eBook too, but just for kicks visit a bookstore and get it in hard copy. Place your nose inside and inhale deeply.)