Reading Back the Way I Came
By Joe Mills
Followed by Q&A
We are often told that we are what we eat.
In our world since the printing press it might be
more accurate to say we are what we read.
How each of us digests what we read is a mystery.
And what people really read is sometimes
as puzzling as what they really think.
- Daniel Boorstein, Introduction to Louis L’Amour’s
The Education of a Wandering Man
... long ago he cultivated the habit of all wise travelers
in wild country, of turning to look back.
Faced from the opposite direction,
a trail can look vastly different ...
- Louis L’Amour’s Fallon
I tell people that northern Indiana is a good place to be from because everywhere else is interesting in comparison. Abraham Lincoln, who lived there as a boy, described the state as “unpoetical as any spot of the earth.” A grid of farms long ago replaced the forests, and oceans are a concept in books. The area’s main features came from the glaciers. They scraped flat the upper half of the state like the arm of a bored god sweeping across a tabletop, and, when they receded, the melting ice formed thousands of lakes. My grandfather built a wood cottage on one, and, growing up, I spent each summer there.
Three doors along the shore lived Mr. Stewart, a man who loved bass fishing. He was the type of fisherman that people call “avid” when they’re being polite and “crazy” when they’re not. I found him intimidating. A man of barbed hooks and guns, Mr. Stewart lived at the lake year-round while the rest of us went back to the cities in the fall. Each wall of his house displayed mounted game heads and shellacked bass nailed to plaques.
Knowing I was an avid reader, people loaned me books, and I often asked to borrow what I saw in their cottages. With Mr. Stewart, however, I can’t remember the initial exchange. Did I ask, or did he offer? It’s possible that I scanned his shelves, and, seeing an interesting cover, my desire made me bold enough to approach a man I usually avoided. This version makes me heroic, but I doubt that I ever would have had such courage. In a more likely scenario, Mr. Stewart hands me a paperback and suggests I might like it. Maybe he doesn’t know he makes me nervous, or he may be trying to ease my anxiety with a thoughtful gesture. Or, he might be making a public statement, showing his neighbors that he doesn’t just fish, he reads too. The truth is I don’t know exactly how, as an eleven year old, I ended up holding Mr. Stewart’s copy of Louis L’Amour’s Hondo.
Since I had never heard of the book or author, I was that ideal, innocent reader. What was my reaction to this story of a rugged loner who knows the way of the desert and the Apaches and who finds romance with a rancher woman trying to raise her child? I didn’t think much of it. Maybe I was too young to appreciate it. I didn’t have an affinity for deserts or single mothers, but frankly I’m not sure why it didn’t interest me. We often can pinpoint the reasons for our loves and our hates; our indifferences are more difficult to explain. Considering my response, it’s surprising that when I returned the novel, I borrowed another. Perhaps I was afraid to tell Mr. Stewart I didn’t like it. Even more surprising, the book triggered an intense L’Amour reading phase.
Over time, Mr. Stewart and I reached an agreement. I could freely enter his house to take and return books as long as I confined myself to the living room where they were. I read his two dozen L’Amours, and, when I had finished, I read them again. Sitting on the porch swing or lying in the boat, I immersed myself in tales of grub-line riders, gunmen, and gamblers. Soon I began buying my own copies. Combing through flea markets, I built a collection which I read and reread until my junior year in high school when suddenly I stopped. Again there was no easily identifiable reason. Maybe I simply became bored with the repetitive narratives.
I didn’t think about L’Amour again for almost twenty years. Then one day in a bookstore’s children’s section, my eye kept returning to a particular color pattern. I pulled the book out. It was Dr. Seuss’s McElligot’s Pond which I had owned as a child. It felt strange to hold a book I had read years ago and to which I had a visceral reaction, but whose story I couldn’t remember. With my back propped against the Tiny Tots Story-Hour Table, I read it again.
A boy is fishing in McElligot’s pond when a passerby begins to mock him. There’s no fish in there the adult tells the boy. There’s only garbage and old cans, bottles and abandoned shoes. The boy insists the pond may be deeper than people think. It may have a passage that leads to the ocean. There may be mysterious fantastic fish below its surface. He refuses to quit.
I finished the book stunned to realize how much of its philosophy I had adopted. Don’t be deceived by the surface. As the boy says, “... you never can tell/what goes on down below!” Exotic fish may exist somewhere as yet unknown; the imagination can transform our garbage-filled world into a beautiful, mystical place. Theoretically, I knew books shaped me; here seemed to be a concrete example. I began to wonder about my other reading. How had all those L’Amours affected me?
I decided to go back to L’Amour’s work and explore what happens when we reread. Can we gain insight not only into the story, but into who we were then and who we are now? Can rereading serve as an exercise in self-analysis?
I considered trying to locate Mr. Stewart. If he lived close enough, I could borrow his copies again. We could talk about what L’Amour meant to him, and why he had let me use his library. Was it because his own son didn’t read very much or share his tastes? Back then, I didn’t understand what it meant to loan a book, how you’re offering up your taste, sharing a part of yourself through another’s words. When the person likes the book, it validates you. He must have taken pleasure from my pleasure. Since I knew him only as Mr. Stewart, however, he would be difficult to find. I gave up the idea and headed for the library.
What I discovered there stunned me. Several dozen books stood in a uniform edition: The Louis L’Amour Collection. Bound in brown faux leather, they were volumes to be displayed. I was appalled. These hardbacks required two hands to hold. They couldn’t be casually carried around, shoved into pockets, or read while lying down. What was worse, the covers evoked no memories. This collection was not my L’Amour. These were not the books that I had read.
I went to Borders in search of paperbacks. To my annoyance, I realized many of the designs had been changed. Fallon, for example, had a “new” cover similar to the old one, yet significantly different. Both portray men at card tables, staring up from under their hats, but the new one had a younger, rougher looking model. He looked callow rather than cool. Suddenly, I had a disturbing thought; was I so much older that the figure looked young?
I began searching for earlier editions. L’Amour’s incredible sales figures means almost any yard sale or used book store has his work. I easily found the paperbacks I used to own. I started with my favorite, Reilly’s Luck, which tells the story of a professional gambler who is tricked into taking care of a young boy, Val. Like most of L’Amour’s novels, the book chronicles the process of an education. Reilly gives lessons not only on how to live, but how to live well. He emphasizes an appreciation of good books, clothes, and food. He educates Val, and by extension the reader, about what to value. In one of my favorite scenes, Reilly asks Val how many windows a building across the street has. Val doesn’t know and Reilly explains that’s because he’s looking without seeing. I used to test myself in a similar fashion, stopping and asking, “How many cars are in the parking lot you just passed?” I always failed miserably, but, even now, I continue to insist to my students and myself, “Pay attention.”
After rereading Reilly’s Luck and Hondo, I realized that they were similar narratives. Each is about a loner who takes responsibility for a small boy. Hondo takes his charge into the desert, and Reilly teaches his about the urban wilderness. Why had I loved one and not the other? Perhaps, because Reilly’s advice seemed more useful. I could apply what he tells Val: “A gentleman never cheats ... but you will not always play with gentlemen, and it is well to know when you are being cheated.” I might someday be in situations where I would have to face other men, where there would be money at stake, where we would raise, call, and bluff. Hondo’s knowledge of the desert was interesting, but irrelevant. When would I need to know that chewing the twigs of yerba del pasmo was good for a toothache? Living in the Midwest, I would never be a cowhand or a rancher, but I could play cards. Or, I could at least adopt the gambler’s philosophy. Yes, we live in a world of chance, and you never know what hand you will be dealt, but you do have a certain amount of control in how you play the game. In the absence of religion—my family had stopped going to church—this philosophy offered a substitute world view, a way to deal with the apparent randomness of the universe.
L’Amour’s work insists on the importance of knowledge: of books, of woods, of people. And, L’Amour looms over all as the wise one, the ur-father and teacher. He pontificates on almost every subject from how to make a bowl out of bark to how to choose a wine. Perhaps this was part of his appeal. Long before my parents divorced, their problems were evident. Reading was an escape, but was I also looking for advice? Did L’Amour’s authoritative tone resonate with a kid whose father was working all the time to avoid coming home to a woman he no longer loved?
The one area in which L’Amour offers little advice is relationships with women. His heroes are more comfortable talking to their horses than the opposite sex. The gunfighter Kilkenny looks at the house where his love sleeps and says to his mount, “She’s there, Buck, old boy, there in that house. Remember her, Buck? Remember how she looked the first time we saw her?” Rereading these scenes I cringe, in part because as an adolescent I loved them. I may have even talked to my bicycle about my grade school crushes. (Certainly, I named it and pretended it was a horse.) While my classmates were getting an education from Henry Miller, Erica Jong, and Hugh Hefner, I remained unenlightened. Kilkenny does kiss Nina: “Roughly he took her arms and pulled her to him and she reached hungrily for his lips and they melted together and deep within him something seemed to well up and the cold dams across his feelings were gone.” Just as this scene might become informative, however, Kilkenny “pushed her away” saying, “It’s no good . . . no good at all. You’ve too much to waste on me.” When I finally did kiss someone, she neither moved “hungrily” nor melted. I remember thinking, “Is this it?” And, it was her who pushed me away saying the equivalent of “It’s no good ... no good at all.”
L’Amour offers romances for men, stories where Horatio Alger goes West. They follow predictable patterns, and this is part of their appeal. When I read Ride the Dark Trail and the protagonist didn’t get the girl at the end, I was discomforted in a way few novels have affected me since. I was the Kathy Bates of Misery, the obsessive reader demanding the same narrative. I wanted familiar texts that offered familiar lessons on how to deal with an unfamiliar world. L’Amour’s books with their repetitive narratives, characters, and attitudes provided a reassuring constancy. Is this why I stopped reading him when I did? As I grew older, did the world no longer scare me or seem so dangerously changeable? During my “L’Amour years,” my family moved four times among different cities, and I changed schools several times. After we moved back to my hometown and regained a geographical stability, I moved on to other authors.
As I reread these novels, it became obvious how many of their values I have embraced. Take care of the land. Don’t look for trouble. Don’t brag about what you’ve done. Appearances deceive. Stop and assess the situation. Be patient. Work hard. Educate yourself. In fact, the values exemplified in L’Amour’s work, such as a respect for education and an insistence on concentration, are those a good reader should possess. These paperbacks made me the person that I am, in part, by making me the reader that I am. They strengthened and validated my love of books.
L’Amour’s heroes respect literature. At times the narrator begins the story almost illiterate, and by the end he is reading classic texts, such as Plutarch’s Lives. So many characters quote Tennyson’s “Ulysses” that I sought it out and memorized it. The protagonists work to improve their minds, but, of course, they can handle themselves in violent situations. They shoot, punch, and quote poetry. Will Reilly pins a man’s hand to the table with his knife and then reads him poetry. Kilkenny goes into a hotel and orders from the French side of the menu, telling the waiter, “I’ll have the Paupiettes de Veau Provençal, and tell your chef I’ll have nothing but Madeira in the sauce.” How could this not appeal to an adolescent male? Was it a coincidence that in high school I signed up for wrestling and French or that while earning a graduate degree in literature I took a karate class?
In L’Amour’s work, reading is more than a skill; it is a metaphor for living. In The Daybreakers, Tyrel Sackett discovers that it has a practical use: “... I got a surprise by learning that a man could learn something about his own way of living from a book.” However, he also realizes it is a way of perceiving relationships. At one point, he has a revelation: “Suddenly I knew I didn’t have to kill him. Mayhap that was the moment when I changed from a boy into a man...Reading men is the biggest part . . .” You can read people, and you also can read the land. The character Conagher uses this very phrase, telling his son, “look upon the land, Laban—there are stories everywhere.” Reading is a way of seeing and thinking about the world.
Books can protect you. In Reilly’s Luck, friends of Val put together a library for him. One of these works literally saves his life when an assassin shoots at him, and the bullet, which would have struck his heart, instead lodges in a book he holds.
Books also provide company. Will Reilly tells Val that poetry can be a “companion” in lonely hours. Although protagonists in L’Amour’s work insist that they are loners, this is not true because they read avidly. Even when people insist that a man must rely only on himself, each story emphasizes the need for social relationships. Many of these novels end not only with the hero finding love, but embracing friends. Such a loner/friends dichotomy gratifies the reader because reading itself is the paradoxical act of isolation and communication. Removing us from human friends, books offer as compensation the company of the author and characters.
In fact, when we loan books, we are making social introductions. What Mr. Stewart was saying when he handed me Hondo was “Here’s a friend of mine. I think you’ll get along.” He was right. For a while, L’Amour and I became inseparable companions. Rereading these books was touching base with a best friend years ago. Forgotten memories emerged, and I gained a clearer understanding of what happened in the past and why. As is often the case, however, there was the realization that we have little in common anymore. It was nice to catch up, but we won’t maintain steady contact. Perhaps in ten years or so, I’ll look him up again. We’ll spend time together, a night or two, we’ll go back over the old stories, and I’ll discover who I have become by remembering who I used to be.
Joe Mills currently holds the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship of the Humanities at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. In addition to writing two editions of A Guide to North Carolina's Wineries with his wife, Danielle Tarmey, he has published three volumes of poetry. His most recent collection is Love and Other Collisions.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: On college applications, I listed Louis L’Amour as a favorite writer. At the time, I didn't realize that the work of certain writers has a cultural capital and the work of others does not. Four years later, however, I had learned that there were books you read and talked about, books you talked about, but had yet to read, and books you read, but never mentioned. It would be more than a decade after graduation before I would admit to a childhood spent reading L’Amour.
Q: Who were you, or who do you wish you had been, in a past life?
A: I wish that I could have been a member of Lewis and Clark’s expedition.
Q: Straight road? Or winding road?
A: James Thurber liked to quote a professor as saying, “A straight line is the shortest distance between two points, and it’s also the most boring.” But, the honest answer to this question for me is straight road on weekdays as I have to get my kids to daycare, get to school, get to the next obligation, and winding road on weekends and during the summer. My preference is always for the latter, but my schedule frequently demands the former.
Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?
A: There often comes a point in the revising process where I can feel the pieces fit together in a tight way. It’s like the solving of a jigsaw puzzle. I can almost hear the click, and I think, “Ah, there it is.”
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a novel tentatively titled “Carolina Crush” and set in the North Carolina wine country, a young adult novel called “The Time Shaper,” and a manuscript of poems about reading and teaching.