In 2013, Tim Kreider, writing for The New Yorker, titled his review for Stoner “The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of.” And he is probably right. He goes on to argue that “Part of Stoner‘s greatness is that it sees life whole and as it is, without delusion yet without despair.” This book started out small, selling only 2000 copies in the original printing. However, in 2013 it topped the best seller lists in Europe and has gradually, almost stealthily, entered literary discussions about the American canon.
I know this sounds like a total buzz-kill, but trust me, this book pulls you in so tight that it’s nearly impossible to let it go, even when you’ve reached the last page.
Stoner is, first and foremost, a love story. Oh, not your conventional boy-meets-girl love story, but a deeply graceful look at the things and people we love and the way that love plays out, for better and for worse, throughout a lifetime.
Published in 1965, this is the story of William Stoner, a man born in the late 19th Century to humble origins. The son of farmers, he goes on to become a teacher at a fictionalized version of the University of Missouri. It is one of the most deceptively simple plot lines you could ever imagine: he goes to college where he finds he loves learning, stays in college, upon graduation becomes a teacher at the college, marries, has a long career, and dies. To quote Tom Hanks, writing for 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.”
In addition to his wife, daughter, and a small handful of friends, Stoner discovers that he loves learning, teaching, and literature. None of these come easily, so many of the reviews of this novel refer to it as “sad” but, in fact, while Stoner has his share of disappointments, he possesses a strong and constant spirit that allows him to rise above them.
I will tell you that you should absolutely read this book. But don’t take my word for it – here’s what more learned reviewers have had to say about it:
* John Williams’s Stoner is something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.
— Morris Dickstein, The New York Times Book Review
*Stoner is written in the most plainspoken of styles….Its hero is an obscure academic who endures a series of personal and professional agonies. Yet the novel is utterly riveting, and for one simple reason: because the author, John Williams, treats his characters with such tender and ruthless honesty that we cannot help but love them.
— Steve Almond, Tin House
*One of the great forgotten novels of the past century. I have bought at least 50 copies of it in the past few years, using it as a gift for friends….The book is so beautifully paced and cadenced that it deserves the status of classic.
—Colum McCann’s Top 10 Novels, The Guardian
*That Stoner is exciting – unexpectedly so, and incredible moving – is the true measure of Williams’s achievement . . . It will remind you of why you first started reading novels: to get inside the mystery of other people’s lives.