More good books — Stoner

There are a couple more books from this summer that I wanted to mention as being particularly good. First of all, John Williams’s novel Stoner was an excellent read. It’s not at all what you might think based on the title, having nothing to do with drugs and instead being about academia and midwestern American life. William Stoner is the novel’s protagonist, a man who grows up on a farm with limited prospects, until his father learns that Stoner can go to the University of Missouri to study agriculture and bring his knowledge back home to help improve the family farm. Stoner heads off to school with the best of intentions but — through a pretty harrowing class experience — decides he wants to study English literature instead. He graduates and goes on to earn a Ph.D., eventually becoming a professor and spending his life in academia. The novel charts the ups and downs of his career and his family life.

That all sounds straightforward, and the novel is written in a simple, realistic style that doesn’t draw attention to itself. But the story is devastating. Stoner marries a woman he shouldn’t and unintentionally makes enemies with a powerful colleague and finds himself struggling and unhappy. And there is not much he can or will do about it. It’s a novel of quiet struggle, capturing a time and a culture when people endured rather than rebelling or running away. An early scene in the novel when he tells his parents that he will not be returning to the farm but instead is going to go to graduate school captures this devastatingly: he hadn’t given his parents a hint of the blow that he was about to give them, and when they receive it they are shocked but mute — they don’t have the words to say what they are thinking and feeling. They have never really talked to each other and don’t know how to begin. So, they just quietly part, heartbroken.

This is an academic novel, but it’s unlike any other I’ve read. It deals with questions of the role of the university and the value of scholarship, but the point is not to skewer academia or to laugh at it, as so many academic novels do. Instead, it paints a picture of a man who is trying his best and who takes what opportunities come his way, but finds there is only so far he can travel, that he can’t leave his past behind, and that life can trap him, in spite of his best efforts. It sounds depressing, and I suppose it is, but the experience of reading the book didn’t feel that way. It has the ring of truth to it, harsh as it may be.

13 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

13 responses to “More good books — Stoner

  1. blackwatertown

    Thanks for the interesting review.
    I wonder how much readers are deterred by the title – some do not pick it up in error, other reach for it only to be disappointed.
    http://www.blackwatertown.wordpress.com

  2. That’s interesting–I don’t usually like novels about academia because they fall into those categories. But this one sounds different.

  3. Very interesting – I’ve often heard this novel mentioned but never been quite sure what it was about. I am very tempted to give it a go now!

  4. This is a wonderful review, thank you. This has been on my TBR for a long time, and just recently, an aunt from the US sent me a copy. I can’t wait until it gets here so I can start reading — your review has made me even more excited.

    Also, the copy’s that’s on its way to me is from NYRB. Classics. I think it was a conscious decision of NYRB to put such a bleak painting as its cover — to dissuade anyone who might be thinking it’s about drugs, and rock n’ roll, and ratty couches.

  5. Sometimes I’m sorry I didn’t choose a career in academia, but it sounds as though this novel would be an eye-opener of sorts. I’ll be on the look-out for it now.

  6. I loved this book. So many things about it were compelling and heart wrenching. I loved the scene where he confronts his colleague and his colleague’s protege. Here is my review if you are interested.

    http://myporchblog.blogspot.com/2010/02/book-review-stoner-by-john-williams.html

  7. Oh this sounds good even if it is sad. Just imagining the scene where he tells his parents he isn’t coming back to the farm makes me want to read it.

  8. I’d never heard of this book. I really like novels with an academia setting. Another one for my list!

  9. Someone else was reading this not too long ago as well–it’s one of those books I’d seen around but never quite sure what it was about. It does sound good–one I’ll have to pick up at some point.

  10. Well, I never would have expected a book with that title to be about what it is (definitely the sort of thing one might want to read in ebook format if one plans to read it in public — especially a minister’s wife). Anyway, you’ve convinced me, yet again: into the TBR tome it goes.

  11. It sounds like it really captures the struggle of trying to escape from your past, and still managing to be trapped by your present. Right now that is a little difficult for me to read, but it poses some important questions.

    On your previous post, I sympathize on how difficult it is to choose a new book. Such a commitment!

  12. zhiv

    She’s back and she read Stoner! What a great book, right? Your post is fantastic, just right. It’s a strange, extremely compelling reading experience, and as you say completely unlike any other academic novel that comes to mind. I really liked what you said about “capturing a time and a culture when people endured rather than rebelling and running away.” The panorama of the century in the book is extraordinary too, going from the simplest, benighted dirt farm to a quiet, inconsequential death notice. I love books like this where certain characters and scenes remain so clear–you didn’t mention his relationship with his daughter, which was just heartbreaking. Glad you liked it.

    Any Maine novels? Trip to Maine is much better. Great to hear that you’ve had a such a nice, fun summer. Now I suppose I should think about catching up myself.

  13. Blackwatertown — good question! I’d love to know the answer.

    Lilian — I enjoy academic novels of all sorts, although sometimes I wonder why, since I work in it and why would I want to spend so much time thinking about it? But I do …

    Litlove — I’d love to know what you think. I think it’s very revealing about academic culture, and about midwestern American culture more generally.

    Sasha — I read the NYRB edition, and I like it a lot. They put out such interesting and attractive books, don’t they? You are probably right about the cover. Enjoy reading!

    Grad — I think you may be quite lucky for not having had a career in academia! Well, who knows, but it’s certainly a tricky kind of place.

    Thomas — I completely agree about the scene with his colleague and the student. Very powerful and wrenching. What a dilemma! Thanks for the link to your review.

    Stefanie — I think you would enjoy it. That scene was wrenching, as were a bunch of others. He knows how to get at your emotions, in a sneaky, understated kind of way.

    Iliana — I hope you like it! I agree about academic novels; they are such fun.

    Danielle — I think the book is undergoing a bit of a revival; I’ve heard of quite a few people reading it, both online and in real life. It seems to be one of those neglected but worthy books.

    Emily B. — Yay! I like it when I get you to add books to that tome. Yes, the subject matter is a surprise, and completely different from what one might expect. An eBook might not be a bad idea :)

    Debby — people should probably in just the right kind of mood to pick this up, or at least not in a position to mind some bleakness. It’s thoughtful and well-done, though, for when the right time comes.

    Zhiv — thanks! I was really struck by the culture Williams captures; I can see shades of it in my own family, which is fascinating (and disturbing). I’m still hoping to read Jewett at some point, as for Maine novels. I should read it before Olive Kitteridge fades too far from my mind.

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