I forget when I first came across William Saroyan. I was young, maybe seven or eight years old, and he had just died. His writing by that time had fallen completely out of favor and all his best work was decades in the past. He no longer wrote much fiction and instead had taken to writing short autobiographical pieces, but I was interested in his fiction.
I didn’t read much by him, maybe a story or six, but that was enough for me to go around telling people that William Saroyan was my favorite writer. This was odd for a kid from Jersey City in 1981. It was unlikely any of my friends had ever heard of him.
Despite Saroyan being my favorite writer, I wouldn’t read his stories in earnest until I was enlisted in the army. I figured out by then that if a person is going to have a favorite author, he probably ought to read him, and so I visited my local library and pulled out of there every book by Saroyan I could find, which by then – early 1990’s – there wasn’t much. The William Saroyan Reader, My Name is Aram, The Human Comedy.
I carried these books home to my barracks and began reading. First thing I noticed was none of his books had been checked out in years. Back then, before everything went digital, librarians used to stamp dates on a sheet inside the cover that said when you needed to return the book. Some of the stamps in these books were older than me and the latest would have been new when I was still in diapers. No matter. I started reading.
Now, usually when a boy takes a liking to something and tries to return to it later, he finds it doesn’t meet the high expectations he piled upon it. This has happened to me dozens of times and may yet happen dozens more. But this was not the case here. Saroyan was a joy to read, even when I disagreed with him, which is all I ever ask of a writer. Day after day I whiled away my army time reading the bard of Fresno, marking off days on a calendar, knowing each hour I was closer to my discharge. When I finished those books, I looked for more but could not find any, and so I reread the old books, especially The William Saroyan Reader. I memorized some parts.
And all the while I was doing this I was shaking my head at those too distant stamped dates, knowing readers had stopped reading this terrific author not because he was no good but because he was old. Weekends I’d visit bookstores and see lines around the store to land an autographed copy of some thriller writer’s latest cornball mystery or some science fiction writer’s ridiculous sendup on Star Trek, and at night I’d go home and read Saroyan, Somerset Maugham, Alexandre Dumas, Jane Austen, and so on, those dead authors people had forgotten. Oh, you still had your Sherlock Holmes geeks and your Hemingway-heads, but to me it seemed very random about who reached this iconic “must-read” state and who didn’t. I could certainly see very little reason why Faulkner, for instance, was required reading but Ring Lardner wasn’t, except of course that Faulkner was often a pain to read and Lardner always a joy.
The silliness of it all is that while people chased after new literature, old literature was usually superior and always cheaper. This was true then as it is today. I have this discussion with my daughter often. If you go three months without going to see a movie, you can see every film at the discount theater for 1/5th price. With books your savings are crazier. You can borrow it at your library for nothing. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen a book by Stephen King have 1000 library holds on its launch date. It is at those times I’m happy I’ve never read King’s last book. By always being at least one book behind King, I never have to wait to read one when I want to.
But truth is I need never read another book by a living author again. There is so much good literature inside dusty covers it would take many lifetimes to read it all. Why people continue to pay $30 for a silly hardback or $9.99 for a Kindle book is a mystery. That book won’t be worth 50 cents in 6 months and nobody will be interested in reading it.
Of course, that might be a big part of its temporary allure, why consumers shell out big cash to read inferior books—to be reading things other people are reading. To stay current. To fit in. But of course that’s a hopeless cause, one that always requires effort and doesn’t let you choose for yourself what reading you’d like to do because the mob is always choosing for you.
The only downside to reading writers like Saroyan is that, even if they are prolific, you will come to the last and there will not be, cannot be, more. That’s the shame of it. But at least you’ll never be halfway through a long series when a writer suddenly quits or dies and you are left to forever ponder what happened to those characters.
To counter this, I have made it my habit to set one or two books aside by a writer and not to read them until/unless I am told I am terminally ill. One of those books is Places Where I’ve Done Time by William Saroyan. I believe it is his only book I have not read at least once.
This is probably not advice you would expect to hear from a writer. There is, of course, some kind of self-sabotage in it. If you are busy reading Saroyan, then you cannot be busy reading Valvis. But you know what? I’m okay with that. You probably ought to not be reading this and instead be reading Saroyan or Dickens or Trollope or Balzac—or any of those other geniuses whose books languish on library bookshelves because no TV talk show star has mentioned them this year.
The best things in life aren’t always free, but if you wait long enough they can become free—or at least cheaper. If they’re bread or milk or something that spoils, then it’s no bargain. But if it’s literature, if it’s William Saroyan, then it’s a steal. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
After all, they’re probably reading 50 Shades of Gray.
Author’s Note: “On Reading the Old Stuff” was written in a fit of pique. Other than that, it seems to speak for itself. I would remind the writers out there: we are all just a few decades, if not years, away from being William Saroyan ourselves. (If we’re that lucky.) So, find an undeservedly ignored author and defend him/her to the death.