“Stoner” by John Williams

StonerWikipedia tells us that Stoner is a 1965 novel by the American writer John Williams. The main character is William Stoner, who is a poor farm boy in Missouri until his parents send him to college to study agriculture. He hears a Shakespearian sonnet which leads him to change his study to literature: the first decision he has made based upon his own desires, which had previously been subsumed to endless farm chores. Stoner goes on to a teaching career, working solidly until he is nearly destroyed by academic politics. Meanwhile, his unstable wife Edith is isolating him from the affections of their only child. He falls in love with a younger instructor at the university, and their controversial affair leads to further difficulty.

We read the book in March 2015. Our “scores out of 10” ranged quite widely, from 4 to 9. The average from 12 readers was 7.0.


The notes of our discussion have dried up and blown away like autumn leaves. However, one of our readers – Barbara – provided these thoughts by email:

I enjoyed this book very much.  I think the claims made on the back cover on this occasion, really said it all.

I read somewhere that this novel is partly autobiographical, which suggests that the author’s own values are tucked up here somewhere. We may share many of his views about the strength of the written word against the spoken word, (Discuss!), and also about the importance of lit teachers being passionate about their subject. Too right.

I liked the idea proposed by Stoner’s friend Dave Masters whilst he ate a boiled egg, that the purpose of  a university is to house the “dispossessed” and the “discontented”, and that did seem to be true for this university dept, in that State, at that time. Stoner our hero however saw it as a place where “truth”, ”good” and “beauty” can be found. Despite everything he found some of this.

I thought the passage early on (p10), where Stoner discovers something of Shakespeare’s  speaking  to him across 300 years,  was particularly moving even if you don’t especially like Shakespeare. This sonnet (73), seemed to be even more poignant at the end of the book when Stoner’s quiet, uneventful life comes to its completion. I can see that some people may find his apparent inertia a bit irritating but I don’t. Other bits I liked were the “out of body experience” in the snowy evening, (p. 185)  and the quiet appearance of the deer in the woods during his time away with Katherine.(p.211).

Although there was a lot of disappointment, and real sadness it was not a depressing  book,  I did nevertheless have a few moments of supressed sobs. Obscurity is waiting for most of us but we can take a few good reads along the way. This was one for me.

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1 Comment

  1. “Obscurity is waiting for most of us but we can take a few good reads along the way. This was one for me.” Love this sentiment, nicely put 🙂


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