“to read without joy is stupid”

ever heard of john williams’ novel “stoner”?    find it.   read it.

published in 1965, it’s the story of william stoner, the son of poor, mid-western farmers (“at thirty his father looked fifty; stooped by labor, he gazed without hope at the arid patch of land that sustained the family from one year to the next.”) who is sent to study agronomy at the university of missouri.   in prose as lean and austere as stoner’s physique, the book begins:

william stoner entered the university of missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen,   eight years later, during the height of world war i , he received his doctor of philosophy  degree and accepted an instructorship at the same university, where he taught until his death in 1956.  he did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses,   when he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the university library,   this manuscript may still be found in the rare books collection, bearing the inscription:  “presented to the library of the university of missouri, in memory of william stoner, department of english.  by his colleagues.”

pretty depressing start, eh?   at first, this beginning seems to sum up his very ordinary life.  it gets worse.  as the novel progresses, williams fills in the details of a series of personal disappointments and failures.  after notable defeats at home and at the university, stoner realizes,

he had come to that moment in his age when there occurred to him, with increasing intensity, a question of such overwhelming simplicity that he had no means to face it.  he found himself wondering if his life were worth the living; if it had ever been,   it was a question , he suspected, that came to all men at one time or another; he wondered if it came to them with such impersonal force as it came to him.   the question brought with it a sadness, but it was a general sadness which (he thought) had little to do with himself or with his particular fate; he was not even sure that the question sprang from the most immediate and obvious causes, from what his own life had become.   it came, he believed, from the accretion of his years, from the density of accident and circumstance, and from what he had come to understand of them,   he took a grim and ironic pleasure from the possibility that what little learning he had managed to acquire had led him to this knowledge:  that in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter.

but the synopsis williams offers his reader at the start of the novel, also fails to describe the (admittedly) brief and sporadic, but intense moments of  happiness in stoner’s life.   it omits his dedication and commitment and the deep satisfaction he finds in pursuing his work.

the quote about reading without joy comes from an interview with williams in 1985 in which he described “stoner” as “an escape into reality.”   i fear i’ve described “stoner” as a dour book.   it is not.   perhaps because it so extremely well-written, even at its darkest, it is a pleasure to read.   this is one of the great american novels.

not a novel to read in your twenties.  possibly not even in your thirties.    but no one should miss it.    it is extraordinary — beautiful, moving and profound.