On this day in 1908, the western writer Louis L’Amour was born in Jamestown, North Dakota. L’Amour wrote 113 books, more than 260 million copies of which have been sold worldwide, in dozens of languages, and thirty of which have been turned into movies where guys like John Wayne, Yul Brynner, Anthony Quinn, and Tom Selleck could be guys like Hondo Lane: “…a big man, wide-shouldered, with the lean, hard-boned face of the desert rider. There was no softness in him. His toughness was ingrained and deep, without cruelty, yet quick, hard, and dangerous. Whatever wells of gentleness might lie within him were guarded and deep.”
Other than changing his name from LaMoore, L’Amour arrived at his Romantic formula honestly. He quit school in grade ten for two decades of worldwide “yondering” and an astonishing range of employment and adventure — lumberjack, dead-cattle skinner, circus hand, boxer (51-8 record as a light heavyweight), seaman, and anything else that his hobo travels turned up.
As prodigious as the writing was L’Amour’s reading. In his memoir, Education of a Wandering Man (1989), he says that he read 150 books of nonfiction a year, even in his traveling days. He kept records of his reading habit and scoffed at those who said that they didn’t have time for it — one year he read twenty-five books while waiting for people. The memoir is full of anecdote: reading Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” on a freight train heading west; reading the eighteenth-century romance Gil Blas around a campfire of mesquite root after a day skinning dead cattle, and then spending a week after the job was over taking three showers a day in his hotel room and reading The Rise of the Dutch Republic between times; ship painting and rivet bucking by day, then sleeping “in empty boxcars, on piles of lumber, anywhere out of the rain and wind” and reading Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker; reading by coal-oil lamp from Plutarch’s Lives or of the decline of Hannibal’s fortunes after his victory at Cannae, then going out to sit on the porch and listen to the coyotes howling at the moon, “…sitting there for a long time, thinking of what I had read and of the many wagons that had passed this way bound for California and Oregon.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.