“Sometimes, in the evenings, he wandered in the long open quadrangle, among couples who strolled together and murmured softly; though he did not know any of them, and though he did not speak to them, he felt a kinship with them. Sometimes he stood in the center of the quad, looking at the five huge columns in front of Jesse Hall that thrust upward into the night out of the cool grass… [g]rayish silver in the moonlight, bare and pure, they seemed to him to represent the way of life he had embraced, as a temple represents a god.”
John Williams, STONER
STONER by John Williams was published in 1965 and is 288 pages. I heard about the novel from literary agent Jonny Geller on Twitter. He asked for recommendations of outstanding books that receive little attention, and he put STONER on the list. After completing the novel I’d never before heard of in just three nights, I would have to agree with Mr. Geller.
STONER is the life story of William Stoner, the son of poor Missouri farmers at the turn of the century. His father wishes to send William to the state university to study agronomy to improve their farm, but instead, William finds his true calling in English literature and his place in the sturdy, reliable structure of the university. As he passes the years at the school, the death of his friend in the war, the dwindling light of his favorite professor, and his ill-fated marriage to a frigid and unstable socialite set the course of his future. As he pursues a graduate degree, and eventually becomes a professor at the university, Stoner encounters the terrible unfairness of the world in his work and in his personal life, though his dignity is never compromised.
Stoner is a sympathetic character of the highest quality. His tenderness and humility unite him to the reader, and his quiet strength is admirable, though often painful to encounter. The novel builds in intensity and it has a lingering sadness, and the contrast of such a sturdy, principled gentleman to today’s “typical American” is stark and profound.
As a character study and work of humanism, STONER is an outstanding novel. Don’t let the idea of a quiet character keep you from this book. William demonstrates more passion, intelligence, and genuine love than any character I’ve read in recent memory. STONER begs to be discussed, and would make an excellent book club selection. I give it my highest recommendation.