Review: Stoner

A colleague recommended this 1965 novel by John Williams because it concerns academic life.

The novel is set in Missouri. The protagonist — William Stoner* — grows up on a lonely farm. He goes to university to farm better but falls in love with English literature and decides to stay.

All he wants to do is read and research early-modern literature and bring out the best in students, but — surprise — there are selfish people in the way.

I had to put the book down a few times, as the assaults on Stoner sometimes reminded me of assaults that I have endured from others.

At one point Stoner says “it doesn’t matter” — and then realizes that’s TRUE. Selfish and narrow minded people are always going to be around us, burdening us with their problems. The question is how you deal with them:

Edith [his wife] would burst into anger at either or both of them. And Stoner looked upon it all—the rage, the woe, the screams, and the hateful silences—as if it were happening to two other people, in whom, by an effort of the will, he could summon only the most perfunctory interest.

It doesn’t matter is a good place to start, and I have felt better a few times in the past year by giving up on projects or ideas. It’s good to have other options to take, other people to relate, other hobbies from work.

(Others have said this is an existentialist story. I can see that.)

Why was Stoner attracted to the academic life?

It’s for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world; not for the students, not for the selfless pursuit of knowledge, not for any of the reasons that you hear. We give out the reasons, and we let a few of the ordinary ones in, those that would do in the world; but that’s just protective coloration. Like the church in the Middle Ages, which didn’t give a damn about the laity or even about God, we have our pretenses in order to survive

But bad as we are, we’re better than those on the outside, in the muck, the poor bastards of the world. We do no harm, we say what we want, and we get paid for it; and that’s a triumph of natural virtue…

Academics should read this book. FIVE STARS.

*The expression “stoner” — as in high on drugs — dates from the 1930s, but (I think) it became popular after this book was written.

Here are all my reviews.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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