The wise old saying to not judge a book by its cover is entirely applicable to John William’s novel Stoner. Without even a smattering of any kind of illegal substance in sight, this novel – originally published in 1965 – is all about love and literature. More precisely, it is about that point of falling in love with literature, that moment where you read a book or a poem and find that your heart has swelled to twice its size in the mere “knowing” – the knowing that the voice in the narrative has got you and there is no going back.
The discovery of literature by William Stoner, the protagonist of the novel, is strangely mirrored by the discovery of John Williams’s novel itself, which received a very moderate reception on its initial publishing and then faded into obscurity, to suddenly, almost 50 years later, becoming a bestseller. Precisely the kind of bestseller that is created not by publishing hype, but by the very same love of literature that the book itself embodies, the “word-of-mouth” recommendations borne out of invariable strong reactions to the novel.
Stoner tells the story of William Stoner from his humble beginnings as a farmer’s son in Missouri, who ends up at Columbia University to study agriculture – an initial interlude in his eventual life plan to one day take over his father’s farm. When Stoner is forced to take a general literature course he finds himself completely out of his depth, and while struggling to read some of the classic texts he is put on the spot in class by his lecturer, Archer Sloane, who challenges him to explain the meaning of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. The precise moment when Stoner realises the beauty and denotation behind what he is reading is told exquisitely by Williams, who captures the sublimity of that moment where life itself becomes meshed with written word: “He looked away from Sloane about the room. Light slanted from the windows and settled upon the faces of his fellow students, so that the illumination seemed to come from within them and go out against a dimness; …he thought he could feel the blood flowing invisibly through the tiny veins and arteries, throbbing delicately and precariously from his fingertips through his body.” With this moment, Stoner’s life path is changed forever.
While some reviewers have focused on the plot-line as representing the “uneventful” – as the narrative follows William Stoner through the cycle of an outwardly ordinary, life of securing a job at the University, getting married, having a child etc. – there is actually nothing ordinary about William Stoner or his life. The underlying frustrations, disappointments and sadness that mark his life are in many ways merely the backdrop to his reason d’être, which is his love for learning, and his desire to live by and through those learnings. This is William Stoner’s quest, one that also mirrors the reader’s rich and compelling journey through the reading of this novel. There is nothing ordinary about Stoner’s endeavour to interpret life through the literature he loves – the real poignancy occurs at the many points in the novel when “real life” forces its way in, and does so in cruel yet predictable ways.
John Williams, who was himself a Professor of English at the University of Denver was mostly known for his other novels Nothing but the Night, Butcher’s Crossing and Augustus, for which he received the National Book Award in 1973. In a 1985 interview Williams referred to Stoner as being “a hero”, and hoped that the book would have some moderate success. Fast-forward thirty years to the sudden success of Stoner it would seem that the idea of William Stoner as a kind of hero is finally resonating, as readers look back on the way that literature, reading and the teaching of “reading” has defined essential elements of our 21st Century lives.
Ian McEwan states on the cover of the 2014 Vintage edition of Stoner that this is “A marvellous discovery for anyone who loves literature.” If you do indeed love literature, then this is one novel that you will not want to miss.