“Stoner” by John Williams
(First publication: 1965 / This edition: Vintage Books 2012)
Taken at Starbucks—with my folder from when I was in university…appropriate because this book is about a life in university. 😉
You must remember what you are and what you have chosen to become, and the significance of what you are doing. There are wars and defeats and victories of the human race that are not military and that are not recorded in the annals of history. Remember that while you’re trying to decide what to do. (p.36)
I remember a few months ago, I saw this book when I was browsing in Kinokuniya. It caught my attention because… “Stoner”. I thought it would be about a pothead, haha 🙂 ; thought it might be something like Mikhail Bulgakov’s “Morphine”. I remember looking it up on Goodreads and didn’t find the description too appealing. A while later, I started seeing it everywhere on bookish pages on social media—as if it was The Book we were supposed to read in some kind of unofficial book club. So, I ordered it. 🙂
It arrived about a month ago and I just started it last night—finished it this afternoon. (It’s 288 pages, but I was procrastinating and spent many hours reading, haha) Side note, I also just finished “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” two days ago and both the stories start around the same time, early 1900s, so it was good because I was still in that “time zone”. Anyway, I’ve been putting it off because from reviews I read, I felt that I would get upset or depressed—or just feel something not really nice. Other than that, I didn’t really know what it was about—just knew it centered on a man named Stoner.
The story follows his life from when he was leaving his home to attend university, and then to when he became a teacher at that university, and lastly, to his decline and his death. The resonating emotion here is “failure”. He has trouble in his marriage, his relationship with his daughter, his affair, his relationship with some colleagues and some students, and etc. There were still many happy and celebratory moments, but it has that “everything that goes up must come down” feel to it.
Stoner falls in love with literature during his years as a student, and then eventually becomes a literature teacher himself—and those are my favorite parts of the story: when he ardently shows his passion and even goes into “trances” when he talks about literature. He excels as a teacher and becomes admirable and respected, because people can see that he is very knowledgeable and so impassioned with his subject. I think that’s how people should be, in whatever field they’re in love with—make your life about it and put your all into it.
Nothing too crazy happens in the story. You just follow his life, and it’s as if you live with him and feel all his accomplishments and frustrations. It sounds dull, but…there’s just something. I truly enjoyed the book, in a weird depressing way, but it was just so absorbing. Tom Hanks said in Time magazine:
“It’s simply a novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher. But it’s one of the most fascinating things that you’ve ever come across.”
…and that is how I feel about this book, too. I was fully immersed and it was hard to put down. Usually I don’t read this fast, but…I pretty much put aside all my other tasks to read this—like, eating and sleeping (haha). “One more chapter.” “Okay, just one more chapter.” “The next chapter is only 10 pages, so one more.”
From the first page of the book, I sensed that I was going to get emotional reading this. And I did. Even the last page of the book left me feeling so much. The story doesn’t really hone in on the whole existential crisis thing (that I’m panicking so much about these days for some reason), but the first and last page just put me in that zone. This line from the first page is something I kind of dread to happen to myself:
Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers. (p.1)
I’ve always had this feeling that in order to be “immortal” or to “keep” your existence in the world, there has to be a statue put up in your honor—OR you have to write a book and it gets published. I feel that that way, you will always be around. Stoner wrote books and had them published; and the ending of the book kind of reflects what I feel about immortality in books:
It hardly mattered to him that [his] book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth, at any time seemed almost trivial. He did not have the illusion that he would find himself there, in the fading print; and yet, he knew, a small part of him that he could not deny was there, and would be there. (p.288)
Also, Stoner’s wife is crazyyy. I just feel like I’ve been on a “crazy deceitful wives/women in literature” spree this year—eg. “Anna Karenina”, Cathy in “East of Eden”, “Madame Bovary”. I find that kind of funny. 🙂 They’re so wild.
Anyway, I would highly recommend this. I wouldn’t say it’s a favorite, but I really enjoyed it and would recommend it to everyone. Williams explores the human psyche and behaviors through struggles, effort, accomplishment, and failure, and he does it in such an emotional and thorough way. I will probably want to re-read this again soon.
Here are some of my favorite lines from the book:
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 belief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither the 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. (p.201)
No matter how hard it will seem sometimes, you must’ve give it up. It’s too good for you to give it up. (p.193)
Lust and learning. That’s really all there is, isn’t it? (p.204)