It’s quite rare to come across a book with which I’m so enthralled that I deliberately take my time reading it. More often than not, if I’m enjoying a book, I’ll read it at every given opportunity, desperate to find out how it finishes. With Stoner, however, the 1965 classic by English professor John Williams, I purposely read it at a snail’s pace; delaying its inevitable end.
Up until recently I had never heard of Stoner; first published in 1965 it received one favourable review by the New Yorker before fading into obscurity and within a year it was out of print. However, having since been re-issued by Vintage, its enjoying something of a second life, being heralded by some as a lost classic.
The novel has an unremarkable subject matter which perhaps goes some way to explaining its initial demise; put simply the novel tells the story of William Stoner, who, like the book’s author is an English professor. Stoner lives a quiet, banal life; he marries the wrong woman and often encounters conflict at work; but nothing so extraordinary that will cause him to be remembered after his death.
Thus, what makes such an ordinary life such an extraordinary novel is the prose that lies therein; rich, terse and engrossing, the novel is told with both internal depth and subtle emotion. An utterly, utterly, beautiful read, Stoner is easily one of the best books I have ever read. Finishing it was inevitably bittersweet.
William Stoner enters the University of Missouri at nineteen to study agriculture. A seminar on English literature changes his life, and he never returns to work on his father’s farm. Stoner becomes a teacher. He marries the wrong woman. His life is quiet, and after his death his colleagues remember him rarely.
Yet with truthfulness, compassion and intense power, this novel uncovers a story of universal value. Stoner tells of the conflicts, defeats and victories of the human race that pass unrecorded by history, and reclaims the significance of an individual life. A reading experience like no other, itself a paean to the power of literature, it is a novel to be savoured.
About John Williams
John Williams was born on August 29, 1922 in Clarksville, Texas. He served in the United States Army Air Force from 1942 to 1945 in China, Burma and India. The Swallow Press published his first novel, Nothing But the Night, in 1948, as well as his first book of poems, The Broken Landscape, in 1949. Macmillan published Williams’ second novel, Butcher’s Crossing, in 1960.
After receiving his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Denver, and his Ph.D from the University of Missouri, Williams returned in 1954 to the University of Denver where he taught literature and the craft of writing for thirty years. In 1963 Williams received a fellowship to study at Oxford University where where he received a Rockefeller grant enabling him to travel and research in Italy for his last novel, Augustus, published in 1972. John Williams died in Arkansas on March 4, 1994
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