There are novels, and then there is Stoner by John Williams. And no, it’s not a book about a stoner, as so many people automatically assume. Written in 1965, Williams’ book is about William Stoner, an English professor, and his life from the farm to the university. But that’s not really what it’s about. It’s about being a person.
Stoner is not a novel. Stoner is medicine.
Stoner found me in a hotel book exchange in a tiny hotel on a Greek island where I’d been staying for a month. It appeared on the day before I was set to leave. I hate to jump towards fate, but when I closed the book at last on the train to Vienna, tears in my eyes, I felt as though the journey I took with Stoner was bigger and longer than the European one I was on. So, yeah, that book found me–I didn’t find it.
I read a lot of books. I always have. Most books I read I like. But there are some books that I cradle within me. There are some books that make me better. They flick switches. They CHANGE ME.
That is Stoner by John Williams. And what’s so extraordinary is that I’ve had many people read this book, and they, too have been changed.
“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.”
I don’t want to sing its praises. I’d rather just say, read it. Read it when you need strength and you need to remember that no matter who you are or where you are, you are important. Your life has value and meaning. Each individual person has meaning. Not all novels are about extraordinary people.
This novel is not about an extraordinary person, but a person who knows himself, who tries to be good. That is why Stoner is, to me, a book about a hero.
Read Steve Almond’s critique in The New York Times Magazine for a beautiful, in-depth essay trying to do exactly what I am–getting people to read this book.