Why John Williams’ Stoner Is My Favourite Novel Of All Time - A Quiet Reckoning
John Williams’ Stoner is the only book I have read more than three times.
I had first heard of Stoner after coming across this article in the New Yorker: The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of. I was intrigued, but I wasn’t sold quite yet, so I searched out for more articles, which led me to this one in the New York Times, You Should Seriously Read ‘Stoner’ Right Now.
(And, as an aside, if you don’t feel like reading any further, you should seriously just read “Stoner” right now, I promise you.)
In the latter article, there is a passage that has stuck with me ‘till this day, one that I have never stopped marvelling over, re-interpreting, and returning to.
“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.”
While the passage works wonderfully as a tribute to the complexity with which we approach the evolving nature of love, I think it also works doubly as well as an examination of the human condition.
As children, we look at adulthood as this point in time where the world finally makes sense, where we understand our place in it, and what we should do with our limited time on earth.
As adults, we realize that we have no fucking clue what we’re doing, and any previous thought that we would was the product of an underdeveloped and inexperienced brain.
Then, at some point, you realize that being a human is neither a destination nor an illusion that we’re chasing, but simply an active state of being, a complex, disjointed conglomeration of thoughts, experiences, and emotions, and that that’s simply enough.
And there is something deeply satisfying in that thought. It removes the idea that there is an end goal, something to chase, some place to finally arrive at. You can sigh a sigh a relief, because you’re already there, you’re living it, and you can let go of the mythical place in time where you will get it. This is it. Right now.
But, I can see that I’m rambling. You don’t even know what Williams’ Stoner is all about.
William Stoner was born in 1891 on a farm some 40 miles from the city of Columbia. One day his father gets it in his head that the boy should go to University, to learn a little bit about the science of farming.
At the University of Columbia, he’s forced to take a survey in English, and his life and future is upended after he experiences Shakespeares’ Sonnet 73: That time of year thou mayst in me behold.
He drops all his science classes, graduates with a degree in english, then a Masters, and a PHD. He becomes a teacher, gets married to a woman who does not love him, has a child who his wife forces to abandon him, gets in a dispute with his department head, which ruins any chance he had of academic success, has one great, passionate love, then dies.
“An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.”
That is a passage that appears on the very first page of the book, giving the reader a small understanding of what you’re about to read—a book about a man who left no significant mark on the world, but who lived with a quiet reckoning.
As a boy born from the soil of a farm, he lives his life like he’s tilling a field, quietly, with his head bent down, progressing through time, day by day. And that quietness is present throughout just about every page of the book.
A reader may be quick to say that his life was a failure, or perhaps a tragedy, because Stoner rarely spoke out about the indignities that he had to bear. He bore them on his back without the slightest turn of his head.
But I don’t see the novel as a tragedy and neither did John William. In fact, he thought of William Stoner as a “real hero.”
He discovered what he wanted out of life, and that was to dive head first into literature, and that was exactly what he did. He wanted love, and despite a failed marriage, he found love in an ex-student, who he shared every part of himself with.
I think life is in a lot of ways tragic, when you boil it down. Most men and women do not come close to fulfilling their dreams. Most people settle on what is convenient or in front of them, only to look back on life with total and complete regret, never really knowing who they were, all along.
Stoner, through his teaching, through his writing, through one great love, gave himself an identity he could be happy with. There was dignity there, not sadness.
That’s not to say there isn’t anything sad in the book. It is still an immensely sad book, but I find it to be in the same realm of sadness that you feel when you look over your high school year book, or hear a song that reminds you of someone you used to love.
You’re zipping through a man’s life, from ‘birth’ to death, and reliving all his ups and downs. In the truest sense, it reminds me of the quote, “A man who reads lives a thousand lives.”
I think, to not read this book, to skip over it for another, would be a great tragedy. William Stoner’s life is one worth reading, because it will tell you something about life in general, and about your life, specifically. I promise you that.
And I’m sure I’ll eventually find a new book, but for now, it’s a book I’ll return to many times over, because who doesn’t love looking over that old photo album, every few years?
If you do pick it up and enjoy it, don’t pass over his 3 other novels, which are all as different as a body of work could be:
Augustus - is an epistolary novel, told through a collection of contemporary letters, about the rise of Augustus.
Nothing But The Night - is a short psychological noir about a drunk who has no idea what he’s supposed to be doing in life.
Butcher’s Crossing - is a western novel about a recent Harvard student who wants to go on a great buffalo hunt.
Each is worth a read.