Worship is a bit excessive but reverence not strong enough to describe my feeling for William Saroyan and his work. He provided my first access into the meaning of life—a simple, honest, basic view but deep with color and texture, grit and grandeur.
I was probably about 10, and on one of the weekly trips to the neighborhood library with my brother who was a few years older and infinitely smarter. He hung out in the adult book stacks while I looked for mysteries and dog stories in the children’s section. Sometimes I’d wander over to see what he was up to, and he’d pull down something he thought I might like, that I might “get.” Usually he had more confidence in me than I deserved.
I have a vivid memory of the day he handed me “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” It was a musty, fraying hardback then, but the title sounded like a kid’s book so I said I’d try it. I read a few stories, and while I didn’t get much, I did enjoy Saroyan’s descriptions of walking down the street in San Francisco.
By alternating our check-out, my brother and I managed to keep the book between us for a long time. Eventually I read “And Man,” Saroyan’s story about being 15, looking at his ugly face in the mirror, eating mush, skipping school, discovering what it meant to be alive, and facing the realization that no one else understood. I tell you, a 10 year old gets this stuff. I was hooked.
Through the years I kept going back to this book. “Seventy Thousand Assyrians,” about struggle and race and humanity and everyday life would become my favorite story and remains so today. Then when I discovered Saroyan’s Preface to the First Edition that wasn’t in that library book but is in the pictured softcover, I found a writing manifesto better than any other I’ve read.
Whatever your age, read Saroyan. Then go discover for yourself what it means to be alive.