The Self-Education of Louis L’Amour


“That was Louis’s way – to find something of value from every printed page.”
— Daniel Boorstein

***

The author Louis L’Amour (1908-1988) was among America’s most prolific and most beloved. He wrote 105 books, most of which were fiction, and at his death in 1988 they were all still in print. Most still are today. (His prolific nature resembles another great American author, Isaac Asimov.)

Two things drove L’Amour: Adventure and a deep need for self-education. In his memoir, The Education of a Wandering Man, he makes it clear that the two went hand in hand. His travels were his way of learning by direct experience, but he augmented that with a tremendous and voracious appetite for the vicarious learning that comes through reading.

Writing in in the late 1980’s, L’Amour describes his love of the written word, a pursuit he undertook at all cost:

Today you can buy the Dialogues of Plato for less than you would spend on a fifth of whisky, 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 the time to read. That’s absolute nonsense. In 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.

Many of us think we don’t have the time or the inclination to keep learning, but to L’Amour this was a ridiculous idea. If he didn’t educate himself, who else would do the job? In this sense, all education is self-education.

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.

What is the point of an education? Steven Pinker would define it more precisely years later, but to L’Amour it was pretty simple, and closely aligned with our ethos at Farnam Street: To enable one to live a better life.

Education should provide the tools for a widening and deepening of life, for increased appreciation of all one sees or experiences. It 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.

L’Amour was clearly a proponent of direct life experience, and he had more than most. As his memoir details, his young life saw him take on the role of a traveling hobo, sailor, amateur boxer, miner, and ranch hand, jobs that took him all around the world in search of work and adventure.

But throughout, L’Amour knew that his destiny was to become a storyteller, and he also knew that to avoid a lot of misery in life would require a massive amount of experience he couldn’t obtain directly.

So he did it through books.

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.

So it was with me. I saved myself much hardship by learning from the experiences of others, learning what to expect and what to avoid. I have no doubt that my vicarious experience saved me from mistakes I might otherwise have made—not to say I did not make many along the way.

Although he didn’t set out to learn for this reason, L’Amour also discovered an important lesson in associative pattern-matching and creativity: The brain needs to be stocked full to make interesting and useful connections.

A love of learning for its own sake creates a massive ancillary benefit. What L’Amour says about writers goes for all of us, in any profession:

I have never had to strive to graduate, never to earn a degree. The only degrees I have are honorary, and I am proud to have them. I studied purely for the love of learning, wanting to know and understand. For a writer, of course, everything is grist for the mill, and a writer cannot know too much. Sooner or later everything he does know will find its uses.

A writer’s brain is like a magician’s hat. If you’re going to get anything out of it, you have to put something in first.

I have studied a thousand things I never expected to find use in a story, yet every once in a while these things will find a place.

People who read a lot, people like L’Amour, are often asked about what should be read. Is there some program or direction to take?

The answer we give at Farnam Street and the answer L’Amour gave are about the same: You must follow your passions, follow your curiosities. Why does this work? Nassim Taleb once hit it on the head by saying that “Curiosity is antifragile, like an addiction it is magnified by attempts to satisfy it.”

Down the line, as those curiosities are pursued, the course tends to become quite clear. Trying to pursue some difficult course of study is not the way to get your engines going.

Says L’Amour:

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.

One mistake made by would-be learners it to think that they need guidance or permission to do so. That they must take a class on Shakespeare to enjoy Shakespeare or take a guided tour of the classics in order to enjoy those.

The great works of the world are there to be enjoyed by all. (Of course, we have some recommendations for how to read books in general.) But as L’Amour guides, you must learn and read what you like, unless there is an important extenuating circumstance. Boredom creates a shut-off valve in the brain. And if you’re always reading something of even moderate depth, you simply can’t avoid learning. A continually curious mind ends up at the classics one way or another anyways.

In the end, in a thought later echoed by the technology great Andrew Ng, L'Amour believed the human mind was capable of incredible creativity, perhaps beyond what we currently believe:

Personally, I do not believe the human mind has any limits but those we impose ourselves. I believe that creativity and inventiveness are there for anybody willing to apply himself. I do not believe that man has even begun to realize who he is or what he can become. So far he has been playing it by ear, following paths of least resistance, getting by — because most others were just getting by too. I believe that man has been living in a Neanderthal state of mind. Mentally, we are still flaking rocks for scraping stones or chipping them for arrowheads. […]

We simply must free the mind from its fetters and permit it to function without restraint. Many of us have learned to supply ourselves with the raw materials and then allow the subconscious to take over. This is what creativity is. One must condition oneself for the process and then let it proceed.

If you liked this post, you might like these too:

Schopenhauer on Reading and Books – One of the most timeless and beautiful meditations on reading comes from the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

Reading a Book is a Conversation Between You and the Author – Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it— which comes to the same thing— is by writing in it.