To say that John Williams’ Stoner is the best novel I ever read would not be an exaggeration. You might guess that I had time to read a lot of books owning a storefront bookshop for 27 years, but I had to sneak novels during the slow times, as almost every day offered a new experience beyond the page, to talk, to share, to listen. It was like theatre, sometimes. Through it all, I did read two to three books a week and if you do the math that’s 9,000 or so books in a lifetime. So why does Stoner stand out?

I stumbled upon Stoner about 25 years ago when reading the Rediscoveries series edited by literary critic David Madden, which presented some of the finest overlooked works of fiction which had been reviewed favorably but had enjoyed little audience appreciation or sales. I began a quest to identify and read all these forgotten gems.

Once I located Stoner, I read it with relish. Written in 1965, it is a novel of an intellectual life spent at a major university, spanning the decades from 1915 to 1950. Stoner was widely considered a snoozer: the political climate of 1965 was exploding all over college campuses with activism, anti-war sentiment, students’ rights, drugs, and new music as the foci. However, the focus of the Stoner saga (for Williams, not double-entendre for a state of inebriation) did not match what his readers saw, instead portraying academic life as the drudgery, routine, petty politics, and institutional in-fighting of the university. But if that wasn’t enough to hook you, Williams’ novel offered a thesis on the joy of teaching. Excited yet?

The basic bare-bones plot: a Missouri farm boy discovers the joy of literature, has an awakening which develops similarly to Henry Miller’s protagonist in Call It Sleep, substituting a farm boy for Miller’s Jewish city boy, though in some ways both are recent immigrants to America. The story moves through the long stretch of history from the start of World War I to the Jazz Age, through the Great Depression, World War II, and finally into post-war America. Seamlessly, the narrative voice is subtle but so persuasive, neither chatty nor overly cerebral, with slight changes to track the passage of time that seems barely perceptible in the end.

The protagonist, cheekily named William Stoner, sees himself as a failure, as an inconsequential academic in an obscure discipline that few care about. He has no significant place in the world and is forgotten by his colleagues and students. So why was I and am I still moved? Why is Stoner a hero? Why do I continue to name this my favorite novel?

Stoner avoided service in World War I, when both of his best friends enlisted, one of whom died in combat. He could not leave his “damaged” destructive wife for the love of his life. Despite this and a host of other disappointments, Stoner emerges as one of the classic “anti-heroes” of mid-century literature, a status not born of greatness but honesty, integrity, and courage, fighting against institutions, fighting for purity in learning and truth.

Williams’ writing is simple, not grandiose, and gives his characters the space to breathe, and then grow. Describing Stoner’s first professor, Williams writes “his long thin fingers moved with grace and persuasion as if giving words a shape that his voice could not.” While drawing the protagonist’s wife, the poet eclipses the novelist, “With wonder, Stoner realized that she was crying deeply and silently, with the shame and awkwardness of one who seldom weeps.” Later, of true love, Williams muses, “the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”

One scene follows the response to Stoner’s father-in-law’s suicide, settling on his wife’s relief. At home, after the funeral, she destroys all the toys from her childhood her controlling father had given her, seeking to free herself from the constraints of that burden.

Soon after reading Stoner the first time 25 years ago, I was appraising a houseful of books and furniture. In the basement were boxes meant to be thrown away. The boxes strained at their edges with broken toys and dolls dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I thought of Stoner’s wife, destroying her childhood possessions, and asked permission to “rescue” the broken memories. I took the boxes to my storefront, Kaleidoscope Books & Collectibles, and created a display window of lost and broken things that needed love and a new home, to honor the once forgotten novel that was never really broken. It was among the more successful windows throughout my 27 years.

Which is to say: thank you, John Williams, for giving me a more modern Goodbye Mr. Chips, a more compassionate look at broken marriage than Revolutionary Road, and a more intimate feel for academia than conveyed in War Between the Tates. And thank you for helping me see that sometimes an ordinary life is an extraordinary one.

–Jeff Pickell
Owner, Kaleidoscope Books & Collectibles

Featured in February 2018 newsletter