Welcome back to our series on the libraries of great men. The eminent men of history were often voracious readers and their own philosophy represents a distillation of all the great works they fed into their minds. This series seeks to trace the stream of their thinking back to the source. For, as David Leach, a now retired business executive put it: “Don’t follow your mentors; follow your mentors’ mentors.”
When digging in to the best novels and authors in the Western genre of literature, there are a few names that pop up over and over again. Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, Zane Grey, and of course, Louis L’Amour. Over the course of his prolific career, L’Amour published over 100 books — most of them novels, but also over a dozen short story collections, and one brilliant autobiography, Education of a Wandering Man, which is more of a journal of his prodigious reading rather than a life telling (note: all quotes in this piece are from that book). Amazingly, not a single novel of his was published until 1951 when he was in his early 40s, though he had been writing poems and stories his whole adult life.
Though he’ll rarely be praised for writing beautiful or lyrical prose, L’Amour is one of the top 25 bestselling authors of all time, and when you ask grandpas — yes, as a whole category — about their favorite authors, he seems to almost universally top their lists. L’Amour writes with a realistic quality that isn’t easily matched in the genre, balancing both the romance and realities of Western life. His action scenes are superb, but more striking are his lifelike depictions of the landscape, the horses and horsemanship, the movements and habits of American Indians. Few have ever researched and truly lived the West like L’Amour.
As a reader, L’Amour’s only match may have been Theodore Roosevelt himself. The Western writer had a library of over 10,000 books, and averaged reading 100-120 books per year — “reading approximately thirty books a year on the West in its many aspects” both for pleasure and in order to stay on top of his writing game. Education of a Wanderi... Check Amazon for Pricing.
And it wasn’t just books either — he regularly read magazines, newspapers, and even small town pamphlets and brochures. He noted that it was in those smaller collections of the printed word where one got into the nitty gritty of understanding things and that “They are often valuable additions to the larger pages of history.”
He was also an avid collector of Little Blue Books — small, pocket-sized informational booklets — noting “I carried ten or fifteen of them in my pockets, reading when I could,” and that he had “read several hundred” of them.
Louis L’Amour’s life story is in fact primarily a love affair with books. He had this to say about his motivation to be a successful writer:
“To me success has meant just two things: a good life for my family, and the money to buy books and continue the education of this wandering man.”
Before we take a look at the specific books that influenced L’Amour, let’s take a brief look at his story, and how he came to be such an avid reader.
The Origins of Louis L’Amour’s Love Affair With the Written Word
Louis was born in 1908 in Jamestown, North Dakota, the 7th and final child born to Louis and Emily LaMoore (it was later that the younger Louis changed the spelling of his last name to L’Amour — its original rendering — to honor the legacy of his French ancestors).
As a child, his family had a modest collection of books, but it was at the library that his love of reading really came to life. His oldest sister, Edna, was a librarian, and Louis spent long hours in the stacks exploring subjects that his schooling only tangentially covered.
At home, that learning was cemented with further reading and discussion:
“Ours was a family in which everybody was constantly reading, and where literature, politics, history, and the events of the prize ring were discussed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
In fact, he said that “reading was as natural to us as breathing.”
Because of economic difficulties, the family moved to Oklahoma in 1923, and Louis dropped out of high school to become an itinerant worker; though he doesn’t give many personal details, it’s likely he struck out on his own because he didn’t wish to be a financial burden at home. From logging in the Pacific Northwest, to cattle skinning in Texas, the young man traveled all across the country (and the world), taking any job that would put a meal in his belly, and fund his reading.
L’Amour was in fact tramping around the Far East on freighters — Singapore specifically — when his old high school classmates graduated. At that time he specifically remembers reading Departmental Ditties, a poetry collection by AoM favorite, Rudyard Kipling.
Until WWII, L’Amour’s life was a series of manual labor jobs. He was an abandoned mine caretaker (guarding against thieves and vagabonds), ditch digger, cargo officer on ships, logging inspector, amateur boxer, and more. Through it all, the bachelor noted, “I was never without a book, carrying one with me wherever I went and reading at every opportunity.”
Westward the Tide: A N... Check Amazon for Pricing. Even then L’Amour knew he wanted to make his true living as a writer — preferably as a poet. So when he wasn’t reading or working, he was writing. When his poems didn’t catch commercially, he tried his hand at short stories, in a variety of genres — Far East adventures, boxing tales, Westerns. He wrote about nearly everything. Finally in the late 1930s, his stories started being accepted by the pulp magazines that were popular at the time.
Then WWII came. While at age 35 he was too old to see active combat, Louis served stateside as a winter survival instructor (employing skills learned from growing up in North Dakota), as well as two years in Europe commanding a fleet of gas tankers. During the war, as you can imagine, he avidly consumed the Armed Services Editions of the popular books of the time.
Upon returning from the war, magazines and publishers were looking not for the adventure stories that Louis previously had success with, but mysteries and Westerns. They were all the rage. Given the traveling and working L’Amour did in the West, that’s the direction he followed, not out of passion necessarily, but because that’s where the market was leading him and where he ultimately found success. After getting over 100 short stories published in the next decade or so, he finally landed his first novel in 1951, Westward the Tide.
From then on, he cranked out multiple books a year. He found love and married Kathy Adams in 1956, and together they had a son, Beau (1961), and a daughter, Angelique (1964). Details about his family life are not easily found (he was a rather private fellow), but Louis kept up his torrid reading and writing pace until he died in 1988.