Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

The details:

Title: Stoner
Author: John Williams
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1965)
Pages: 288
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

The introduction to Stoner lauded it to me as a defense of the humanities, of studying a topic for passion rather than the utility of the thing, something I’m all for and which seems to have been abandoned in our modern society. It says of an interview the author John Williams gave:

he complains about the change away from pure study within the universities, the results of which cannot be predicted, towards a purely utilitarian, problem-solving way of doing things more efficiently, both in the arts and sciences, all of which can be predicated and measured. Then, more specifically, Williams complains about the changes in the teaching of literature and the attitude to the text “as if a novel or poem is something to be studied and understood rather than experienced.”

Our hero, William Stoner, was born on a farm in rural Missouri. He doesn’t have any thoughts beyond working on his family farm until someone speaks to his father about the possibility of him going to university in Columbia, Missouri. Stoner, as he is called throughout the book, spends his first year dutifully studying agriculture, vaguely feeling that the information he learns will eventually be useful when he returns to the farm, but feeling no real interest in the topic. During his second year, he takes a mandatory course on English Literature and decides to change his entire program. He doesn’t tell his parents about this change and doesn’t have any idea what to do with this new course of study until one of his professors tells him that he’s going to be a teacher.

Stoner seems so powerless. He falls into his profession by chance. He never once asks himself how he can become like his favorite teacher and only considers the path after it’s suggested to him. The author tells us how passionate he is about literature, but we don’t really get to feel that at all. We find out his dissertation topic, but not why he chose it. It’s a book about being passionate about a subject, about feeling so strongly about it that you abandon everything you know to follow it to see where this new knowledge leads, and yet it lacked passion. Williams is very matter-of-fact as he tells the reader about each stage of Stoner’s development.

It is a dry book, and the contrast between Stoner’s supposed love of literature and the plain, detached narration style was interesting but sometimes worked against the novel. I am not by any means advocating for a pre-broken heart Marianne Dashwood intensity of life, but the level of stoicism displayed by Stoner was off-putting to me. One of his friends describes him as Quixotic, but there was no tilting at windmills and an unfortunate lack of imagination displayed at various points. I never felt like Stoner really wanted anything. We are told he falls in love, we are told he loves literature and loves teaching, but I saw little evidence to prove that. The women in the novel are also rather stereotypical and undeveloped, which detracted from my ability to really like this book as much as others do.

Although Stoner was originally published in 1965, it didn’t sell well in its original printing. Recently, it was translated into other languages and became a huge hit in Europe and eventually found its way back in print in the US thanks to New York Review Books. Although I have mixed feelings about this book, I think perhaps the point is the contrast between how we perceive ourselves and how we appear to the world. To himself, Stoner felt like a Don Quixote, a dreamer in a confusing world, but to outsiders it just appears that he’s caught in the stream, carried along in the choices that seem inevitable. He has an overwhelming passion for literature, is sometimes caught up in the feeling as he leads lectures and seminars. Like his author, as quoted in the introduction, when asked if literature is written to be entertaining, I think he would agree:

“Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid.”

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