The Bookshelf: Stoner by John Williams

Stoner cover art

I recall the day I stumbled across this book vividly.  I was at a friend’s book signing (Jennifer Sey’s autobiographical sports memoir Chalked Up… I would highly recommend picking it up) when I happened to glance over at a table with “staff picks”.  The title caught my attention… and the very incongruous cover art drew me in.  He certainly didn’t look like a stoner… this looked quite staid.  So I flipped it over and read the blurb…. my curiosity was piqued.

The plot is about as basic as can be.  A man, William Stoner, is born a poor farmer in Missouri just before the turn of the 19th into the 20th century.  He ages, his parents send him to college to learn agricultural science, he discovers literature, becomes a professor, gets married, is miserable for at least 80% of the book, has a romance, some work issues and eventually dies.  That is it.  But it truly is so much more…

The author John Williams (not the composer) wrote this novel in 1965.  It saw absolutely no success.  In fact, it was out of print for decades until the New York Review Book Classics re-released it within the last decade.  Every review I have read of this book says essentially the same thing:  How is this book not a classic? 

It breaks most rules regard exposition, yet each word feels chosen and perfect.  The story has little in the way of action, yet I was riveted at each turn of the page.  It is less than 300 pages in length, yet you will feel every day of his life.  His miseries, his joys, his successes and his failures.  It is a startling look at the early 20th century and every passage rings with honesty and truth.  When his daughter is born in the early 1920’s I couldn’t help but realize his daughter would have been my grandmother’s age… this is a story of our great grandparents and the America they may or may not have lived in.  This book can be viewed as either academic in it’s nature or as a piece of pure Americana… but most importantly it is beautiful.

As I mentioned earlier, I was gripped from the moment I read the blurb on the back.  I cried at least twice during this read and found myself angered at other times.  This is a profound read… and if you wish to see what a modern classic could look like, I would greatly suggest you read this book, Stoner.

Everybody must get Stoner…
Cornelius J. Blahg

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