Every now and then it’s nice to write about something really simple and pleasant. Today it will be about a wonderful book.
The novel Stoner by John Williams was published in 1965. It received little notice, but 50 years later and driven largely by book club enthusiasm, it has ascended to the status of a great American novel. This is a little hard to imagine, since it simply follows the life of a professor of literature at a college in the Midwest in the 1930s and 1940s. This is not a throbbing plot, and the reader knows from the very beginning that William Stoner will die in these pages and be forgotten. However, when I put the book down, I knew that Stoner would be with me always.
I was in love with Stoner by then–or was it with the author who had created him? But how could I be in love with the character? He was not handsome, powerful, successful, classically heroic, or in any other way the kind of man who typically inspires feminine fantasy. It made no sense, and yet it made perfect sense.
It was two good friends, members of the same book club, who initially brought Stoner to my attention with effusive praise. After I read it, I referred it to four other women who responded in kind, and they all know great literature. Of the six of us, four, including me, said flat out, “This is the best book I have ever read.” My sister Kate says she may even read it a second time.
I intend to share my own impressions of the book first, but I’m also curious about what literary critics have said regarding its merit. I have printed out a collection of reviews that I will read before I wrap up this post, and I will share the comments I resonate with most. First, however, my own thoughts.
I believe that we live in a time when both sexes are a little confused about the basis of attraction and what we want and need from each other. In addition, the differences between us seem to be blurring a bit. Women are growing bolder and more self-sufficient. Men, on the other hand, are expected to be more sensitive and accommodating. For those naturally loaded with aggression, it must be a little challenging to figure out what kind of behavior is acceptably “manly.” The line one should not cross may seem ever nearer.
In the case of Stoner, John Williams has created moment by moment a person who is a man specifically but who is beset by circumstances symbolic of the human condition. In the course of my own reading, he became a person I knew intimately, one who seemed to mirror my own challenges, weaknesses, failures, and struggle for understanding through wonderful literature. Even though Stoner accomplishes little in conventional terms, he leads the reader on a humble and very moving journey of self-awareness. Stoner’s heroism lies in the fact that he is by choice a very conscious human being. By the end of the book, it may be impossible to imagine a greater act of courage.
And now a little about the man whose writing has so inspired readers. John Williams was born in Texas in 1922 and served in World War II before pursuing his education at the University of Denver and ultimately getting a PhD in English literature from the University of Missouri. He eventually became the director of the creative writing program at the University of Denver, published a couple of books of poetry, and wrote two other novels besides Stoner. One was Butcher’s Crossing, a novel about frontier life in Kansas, and another was Augustus, an historical novel about Augustus Caesar that won the National Book Award. He died in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 1994 at age 71.
So why do critics believe this book is a classic? As I studied the material I had printed out, I discovered that Stoner had sold only 2,000 copies in its initial printing. Technically a failure, it had become a bestseller all over Europe by 2013 after French writer Anna Gavalda discovered and translated it. That popularity stimulated interest back in the United States. However, appreciated only by a “bookish cognoscenti” as one critic put it, sales continue to lag here.
Nevertheless, enthusiasm for this masterpiece surfaces in many different and interesting ways. For example, Colum McCann of The Guardian wrote that he has distributed 50 copies among friends. In an interview in Time, actor Tom Hanks said, “It’s simply a novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher. But it’s one of the most fascinating things that you’ve ever come across.”
And then finally I found what I was looking for in a review by Steve Almond in The New York Times Magazine last year. He wrote, “I devoured it in one sitting. I had never encountered a work so ruthless in its devotion to human truths and so tender in its execution.” The title of his review is telling: “You Should Seriously Read ‘Stoner’ Right Now.”
There you go. Not an experience to be missed. And I suspect that you will feel love for both Stoner and Williams–one and the same perhaps–by the end of it.