There are some books that just seem to split humanity into two camps – and Stoner by John Williams is certainly one of them. Reading this book during my lunch break two comments by different colleagues were exemplary of that. “What are you reading?” one of them asked, and groaned in despair when I held up the cover. “I hated that book! It is so boring, nothing happens in it, there is no plot!” I didn’t let myself be scared off by this judgement and within the hour another colleague passed me by, glanced at my book and exclaimed, “you are reading my favourite book of all time!” John Williams has written the ultimate novel to divide readers into those who need a plot and those who don’t. If you have read just a few of my reviews over the past couple years you will know that I belong very firmly in the second category. All I want in a book are insights into characters’ emotional lives and quiet observations about life and society – and Stoner offers an abundance of both.
William Stoner knows he will be a farmer, working on his father’s meagre farm in Missouri. But like every good American father, Mr Stoner wants his son’s life to be an improvement from his own. And when the state university introduces a course on agronomy it is decided: Stoner will become a farmer – with a degree. So the nineteen year old boy leaves the farm for college, where he is required to take other courses. After all the university wants its graduates to be fully rounded members of society. English is Stoner’s least favourite subject, the one he almost fails when he is doing quite well everywhere else. Until, one day, he has an epiphany and he falls in love with magic of literature. What follows is the only real decision he will ever take, the only influence he has over his own future. He changes major from agronomy to English, enters the halls of academia and locks the doors behind him. What follows, and this is hardly a spoiler, is a life of many mild disappointments and few, equally subdued, moments of joy. His marriage is a failure, his career unspectacular, he fails to make an impact as a friend and father. Little glimmers of hope, occasional moments of joy nourish his stoic resignation to keep on going. Stoner finds his greatest comfort in books and slowly builds a quiet world of solitude around himself that insulates him against pain and despair.
Stoner is a sad book, an honest book, a beautiful one. Williams’ novel is deeply moving in its raw acceptance of what life is to most: struggling through long days and weeks, while watching years glide by like sand through your hands. Wanting to hold on to moments, sometimes longing to let go as the clock just keeps ticking. The simple, monotonous style perfects the sensation of profound melancholy and this linear plot depicts boredom without ever turning boring itself – though my colleague would disagree with this assessment. Life just goes on however desperately you might be wishing for a break and this novel goes on and takes the reader through a lifetime. I enjoyed Williams’ voice and narration from the beginning, but after the first third this books grows from a good one into a great one just by changing nothing. These flawed characters grow on you, their lives have you reflect on your own (perhaps especially if you have spent some time studying humanities). And who knows, maybe when you put down this gentle, patient novel you will look at the people around you a bit more gently, with a little more patience.