5 out of 5 stars
I came across Stoner in my local bookshop. When I first read the synopsis of this novel I was sure this would be a long and boring read. So I put the book away and moved on to the next one. But as I was drawn to the beautiful cover of the Vintage Classics edition I kept picking it up whenever I was browsing the bookshop. And I kept thinking about the book and about the description of the plot on the back cover. So, even before I decided to read it the book stuck with me.
Stoner is the life story of protagonist William Stoner, who grew up on a farm in Missouri in the beginning of the 20th century. He decides to enrol at the University of Missouri in order to get a degree in agriculture that is supposed to help him take over his parent’s farm. However, once enrolled there he starts to discover his interest in – and later his love of – literature and philology. And this is the aspect that totally gripped me. The way Williams describes academic life and the study of literature with all its ups and downs reminded me so much of the time when I did my degree in literature.
“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”
The novel tells Stoner’s story over the decades and, honestly, there is not much of an extraordinary plot there. But the characters and the way Williams describes their lives and the little intrigues and problems they have to deal with is simply beautiful and gripping. I started reading because I was drawn to the descriptions of academic life and the love of literature. But I kept reading because I wanted to know what was going to happen to Stoner and all those interesting secondary characters that surround him.
Stoner is a novel about the decisions we make and how they influence our life and the people we (have to) share our life with. It also makes an effort of putting the life of an individual person in contrast with the Big Picture. Throughout the book the narrative touches upon important historical events of the 20th century. However, it does this in a way that foregrounds personal life and uses history as a backdrop. One of the novel’s main points is that the life of an individual may not make a dent in the history of mankind but it still is the more important event because all those small insignificant lives make up humanity in the end. Here’s a quote that I really liked and that describes the theme of the novel quite well:
“It was the force of a public tragedy he felt, a horror and a woe so all-pervasive that private tragedies and personal misfortunes were removed to another state of being, yet were intensified by the very vastness in which they took place, as the poignancy of a lone grave might be intensified by a great desert surrounding it.”
So, even though this might not seem like the obvious choice for a fun read, it actually is a beautiful and touching homage to academic and individual life, to the love of books and to being human. I am in love with Stoner and I really hope more people will pick it up and give it a try in the future.