Like many book readers, I got into the habit of acquiring more books than I found the time to read. I counted around thirty-five unread books that I either bought, won, or got as a gift resting on my bookshelves. Out of those, twenty seemed worth reading, and as I saw this could quickly get out of hand I promised myself that I will not get any more books until I read the ones I have.
The deadline was my leaving for university. As a visual pep-talk, on the right side of my couch’s headrest, I made a pile of the unread books and as time went this summer I began piling up the now read books on the left.
At first the one book on the left looked rather pitiful, but the summer ends in less than two weeks for me and I am now closing in on number eighteen. Two books, the Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferris and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which I am reading for the second time after I realized the book might offer more than the two phares I remembered, I decided to nibble on for longer. I also failed to fulfill the promise of not getting new books. I got four in total one of which I already finished, one I am slowly listening to, one I hope to start reading on my way to the UK as university starts, and one is an addition to the family library. As it goes, I was able to justify getting all four of them but it seems it shouldn’t be a problem since I will be able to finish the rest of the books.
When I bought the Education of a Wandering Man about five months ago I had no idea what to expect, neither did I know when I will find the time to read it. To my surprise, as this rarely happens to me, I was hooked from the first chapter.
To give you a bit of background of the book, it is a memoir of Louis L’Amour, a prolific American novelist and short-story writer, primarily of Western fiction, where he reflects on his early years when he left school at the age of fifteen and began working and traveling through the American lands and beyond, all the while with a book in hand, pursuing education at his own pace. As the back cover says:
“From his decision to leave school at fifteen to roam the world, to his recollections of life as a hobo on the Southern Pacific Railroad, as a cattle skinner in Texas, as a merchant seaman in Singapore and the West Indies, and as an itinerant bare-knuckled prizefighter across small-town America, here is Louis L’Amour’s memoir of his lifelong love affair with learning – from books, from yondering, and from some remarkable men and women – that shaped him as storyteller and as a man.”
The Education of a Wandering Man is truly a remarkable book if it were not for more, then just for the stories Louis L’Amour shares.
I think the reason why I enjoyed the book so much is that it encaptures a real story of a man, that has all the right spices man’s heart desires, well, at least mine. The story of Louis’ life includes dangers in the desert, adventures all around North America and beyond, fighting in the docks, stories of old wise people and tough working men, the struggle to survive and to write, the pain of work, the wonders of nature, books as a companion for life, the love of learning, all combined into a short read. I read the chapters with a smile on my face, always wanting to read one more.
There are a few books that I try to carry with me either in my mind or physically if I go somewhere for a prolonged time and the Education of a Wandering Man joined the group. I guess I should dip into what the man actually wrote as well.
Without further ado, here are some of the lessons I learned from reading this great book.
Attention as the key to learning and writing
Imagine you work late shifts at a factory. Ten to thirteen hours a day on your feet. No time to read, no time to listen to audiobooks, no time to write apart from the toilet break, no time think about much, just you, your colleagues, angry boss, incoming orders, your tired body, tired mind and when you get home a hot shower and a few amusing videos are the best you can do before you drop dead asleep. Sleep is also shitty because your dreams are filled with stressful situations from work. You wake up with cramps in your legs, toes are tingly and you repeat it again and again. Maybe that is your normal day with a few variables changed. I admire you that you can endure it for long. It is true you get used to it. And Louis L’Amour did, for years, to jobs far more physically and psychologically taxing, and yet he was able to learn unbelievable amounts from the simple act of observation and listening.
According to L’Amour, it is unnecessary to undergo a journey of the magnitude he did to find things to write about or to learn. He writes it is enough to pay close attention to all that is around you, to the people you talk to, to the places you walk by, to the ideas that occupy your mind. The key is attention and a free mind. Books, films, conversations, imagination can offer similar adventure to those experienced by L’Amour. He writes we don’t need to travel more, rather we need to fully open our eyes if we want to find things to write about if we want to learn anywhere we are.
J.R.R.Tolkien, the author of the Hobbit and the Lord of The Rings trilogy, is a great example of having no need to travel to produce an extraordinary work of fiction that is filled with adventure and exploration. Although born in South Africa, Tolkien spent almost all his life within the boundaries of the English land. The exception was the First World War which he partook in. His daily life was also quite ordinary, which is well encapsulated in a note he sent to his son in 1944: “I managed to get an hour or two’s writing, and have brought Frodo nearly to the gates of Mordor. Afternoon lawn-mowing. Term begins next week, and proofs of Wales papers have come. Still I am going to continue ‘Ring’ in every salvable moment.”
The attentiveness with which we approach every situation determines what and how much do get from it.
That’s it. There isn’t much more to say. If my attitude towards the situation I find myself in is of curiosity, interest, open-mindedness, there is much to be seen, much to be learned.
I also find a retrospective analysis useful. I let the interesting situations of the day play in my mind on repeat waiting for a thought appear and then I begin the analysis. Why did she say that? Why did he react so impulsively? Why did I react in anger? Why do I keep making the same mistake? What can I learn from this person?
I learned the most about people from their responses to different situations, from the intricacies of their expressions and reactions and I learned the most about myself from seeing how do I react when exposed to various stimuli.
I realize this is nothing new. Yet I feel we tend to miss much of the opportunities to find inspiration, opportunities to learn, even in the mundane situations of our life.
If we want to seize all the inspiration and wisdom available in our interactions we have to form an intention to do so.
As a consequence, attention can help to deepen all our interactions and relationships, increase our general curiosity, coloring the world we experience.
Great things await one that pays attention.
To help with paying attenton I recommend doing daily mindfulness meditation. There are many free courses and paid apps that can help to guide you along the way. The app I am using is Waking Up with Sam Harris. You get five days of the fifty-day Waking Up introductory course for free and then it is fifteen dollars a month for a membership. If you can’t afford to pay that much at this moment you can write to the support asking for a free account and they will provide you with one.
And if you are concerned with getting yourself involved with Eastern religiosity and its spookiness it is good to have the great infidel, Sam Harris, guide you through the meditation practices.
Now to the second lesson.
Stop wasting all that free time
Ten minutes getting out of bed, fifteen minutes in the bathroom in the morning, thirty-minute commute, an hour cooking and eating (if you live alone), five minutes waiting for a friend to show up, twenty minutes waiting for a doctor’s appointment, …
As L’Amour writes: “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?”
The modern tendency is to check our email, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, to get lost in the lives of others instead of learning something that can be with you your life long.
The time adds up. I think it is safe to say we are wasting at least an hour a day just waiting to do the next thing, not to mention the time we waste while doing the thing.
As a solution, audiobooks and my headphones became my frequent companion. This summer half of the books I read were at least partly listened to. I remember laughing out loud while cooking as I listened to Catch 22. Audiobooks allowed me to use the time when I can comprehend spoken text, and also do another activity.
It is easier to be lost in thought or to drift into the concerns of the day, yet if I count the benefits it is no brainer. Instead of letting my consciousness float in rubbish I can listen to great works literature for free from Librivox while I brush my teeth.
[I went to a new dentist recently and received a myriad of advice on how to brush and floss my teeth and now it takes me only about fifteen minutes to do so. How practical.]
So, from Louis, I learned that although I tried to optimize my life to seize the most of every moment, there is still a lot of time slipping by that I can turn it into something worth for life. A chapter here and there, and I might just have read a book that transforms my life for better as other books have.
Sign me up.
Writing is more difficult than you think
I started this blog about two months ago and although I still have zero readers I have learned a thing or two about writing since.
First of all, writing is difficult.
You have an idea you want to pursue, you make a new blank google doc, write the title, realize that even that is strangely difficult, and then you dive into the exploration. After five minutes, hit by a feeling of inadequacy, you realize you barely know what you’re talking about.
Then you dive into the necessary research, only to find out the idea is more complicated than you thought. You think of arguments in support of your proposition only for them to be torn apart by your very own mind. After you tore apart two of your best arguments and only one remains you decide to change the topic of the essay you hoped to write and are yet humbled by your ignorance and previous unfounded confidence.
In other cases, you spew out all your soul onto the paper only to find out how shitty your writing is. You read through what you wrote and ask yourself what am I even trying to do.
And yet there is much joy when you finish a three thousand word essay on the origin of the sense of purpose that you had been thinking about for the past two years and yet failed to finish a coherent exposition of what you discovered.
After reading Louis L’Amour’s struggle to get anything published at the beginning of his writing career I realized much more pain awaits me if I ever attempt to publish some of my work.
A manuscript of a book you worked on for years and spent countless hours thinking about rejected by twenty-five publishers is a tough pill to swallow. And yet that is what awaits the majority of writers.
And even if you get published there is no guarantee the book will attract many readers, and even if it does the hopes of earning a fortune from writing should quickly fly out of the window, because the ten percent commission does not add up to a lot.
Of course, I and many other people write for the pleasure of writing. I write because there are ideas I want to explore and paper filled with words allows me to do so. There also are ideas I want to shout from the mountain tops because I want people to be freed, empowered, encouraged, inspired by them. These are the things I hope people would read and enjoy, but until I earn an audience I will write for the prospect of doing so.
Writing is indeed more difficult than I tend to think, and L’Amour has taught me to prepare for even more struggle. However, I hope this struggle will always be outweighed by the why behind my writing.
I know, I know, we all heard it countless times, the wonders of curiosity. Curiosity as the cure to mediocrity, or as the secret of genius. Da Vinci, Newton, Einstein, Feynman all are thought to be at least in part the result of their curiosity towards the world.
However, often when I hear the phrase be curious I am puzzled. What does that mean practically? Should I spend hours a day observing how water moves in river banks as Da Vinci did? Or the movement of the birds? Or stars?
As I read the Education of a Wandering Man I found that L’Amour gives two responses to this question, one general and one specific.
The general answer is, to be at least a bit curious about everything – read, study, ask, discuss, ponder. From how computers work to how to plant tomatoes, from how the universe came to be to how the world economy functions.
This general curiosity finds its origin in the love for learning. Art of Manliness in a short comment describes the memoir as a love letter to learning, the back cover says his lifelong love affair with learning, indicating where this man’s heart stood.
It is also true that no matter how much I love learning there will be subjects that I barely care for, such as botany, while there will be subjects that can consume my mind for years, such as artificial intelligence.
This is where the specific response comes into play, that is to find a thing or two that interests you the most and to dive as deep as you can. After reading L’Amour’s memoir I can say one of his deep interest was the history of all the lands he visited, often long forgotten even by many of its own people.
L’Amour was an avid history reader all the while he read Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Wells, but the pattern is clear. Time and time again he opted for books about the history of the land he stood on or was nearby or was of the past.
We all have our interests, more or less explored yet upon seeing L’Amour’s fervor to know as much as he can, at the cost of not eating just to be able to read [He really did that sometimes, library membership over food.], I was inspired to give a real, deep look to my interest and look even beyond.
The beyond I decided to explore comes from L’Amour’s single interest and that is to pay more attention to the place I live in. What is its history? How does that affect the current affairs? Who can I ask about it? And all the other questions the journey towards knowing where my feet stand brings.
I spent some time now rethinking the book, trying to find more to chew on, more that I can learn. L’Amour as an example of kalokagathia cames to mind yet he is more of an exemplar, a true renaissance man, not the original inspiration to strive for the balance myself.
I will certainly discover more gems as I dive into to the book once more at some point, but for now, this is what I have learned from Louis L’Amour’s Education of a Wandering Man, the primacy of attention for learning and writing, the difficulty of writing itself, from the stage of conception to the publishing process, then realizing my tendency to waste precious time and how easily it can be turned to lifechanging moments, and lastly having a deeper and wider desire to know.
Now, I am going back to explore.
Hope you enjoyed this read, please your take in the comments below.