“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”
John Williams’ novel Stoner is a quiet tour de force. This novel tells the story of William Stoner, who is born into a poor rural family in the late 1800s, Missouri. When he is sent to study agriculture at the University of Missouri, an elective course instills in him a love of literature that changes the course of his life.
Overall, this book feels somber and unassuming. The story itself is not particularly interesting, but I was captivated from start to finish. We see Stoner grow up, attend university and decide to leave his rural family to go on to teach at the university. We also get a glimpse into his personal life with his wife Edith and daughter, Grace. Williams’ writing is plain but rhythmic and the story seems to breathe.
The characters in this story are intricate, precise and deliberate. Stoner is a true academic who faces personal crises, family crises, academic crises and social crises in a genuine and unpretentious manner. His wife, Edith, seems at first a frail, brittle woman but we come to see a vindictive, mean woman who manipulates her husband and daughter throughout their lives. Grace, Stoner’s daughter, shows signs of both parents. Her relationship with Stoner is serious while still incredibly tender.
Academic politics take the forefront in much of this novel. The characters explore the purpose of academia and the ways in which different people try to maintain the integrity of this elite world. When one of Stoner’s colleagues is oblivious to the obvious inability of one student to perform in this environment, Stoner comes face to face with his responsibility to maintain this integrity, no matter what the cost.
The end sequence of this novel is incredibly beautiful. The depiction Williams gives us of the last days of Stoner’s life are like nothing I have ever read. Haunting and deeply moving, these pages are sure to stay with me for a long, long time.
After a life full of disappointments that the reader feels coming but (like Stoner) can do nothing to prevent, literature seems to be the only world that has not betrayed Stoner. This quaint and beautiful novel reminded me of how it feels to be curious, to discover new literature, new voices and new interests and to lose myself in a good book.