Life is funny sometimes. I was feeling like I wanted to recommend a book and decided to start with something light, funny and pretty much a sure thing. I had even downloaded the front cover of the book, which as you can see is The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby. “Spree” is Hornby’s personal diary of 14 months of reading in which he lists the books he has bought each month, on a second list the ones he actually read, and then talks about them. The disparity between the two lists is pretty hilarious, so right off the bat, the story of my life! He’s so damn funny, honest and, most importantly, in accordance with my taste that I became a huge fan after reading this book. So imagine my immense delight when I happened to read “People” magazine today and saw that N.H. himself was featured on the “Recommended Reading” page and chose “Stoner” by John Williams as a book he feels passionately about. “Stoner” recommended in “People” Magazine people! Happiness!! Now I just read “Stoner” for the first time this year, thanks to a friend who told me it was “a beautiful book” and indeed it is. Although the novel was written in 1965 I had never heard of it before, and it is our great misfortune to live in a time where the title is very misleading. The novel has absolutely nothing to do with drugs- Stoner is simply the lead character’s name. It is the story of a young farm boy who is bright enough to rise above his humble circumstances to become a university professor. Stoner succeeds in his career, but not to the level he would hope. Along the way he endures a bitter marriage and a malevolent enemy in his work place. This is a quiet novel but the beauty of the writing will utterly club you. How Williams is able to wring so much emotion and pure elegance from such a spare style is knee buckling. That Nick Hornby would choose this book …. well, my crush just got a little bigger.
A review from The New York Review of Books:
By John Williams
Introduction by John McGahern
William Stoner is born at the end of the nineteenth century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, so different from the hardscrabble existence he has known. And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a “proper” family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude. John Williams’s luminous and deeply moving novel is a work of quiet perfection. William Stoner emerges from it not only as an archetypal American, but as an unlikely existential hero, standing, like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper, in stark relief against an unforgiving world.
View the reading group guide (PDF)
A perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, it takes your breath away.
— Morris Dickstein, The New York Times Book Review, June 17, 2007
Very few novels in English, or literary productions of any kind, have come anywhere near its level for human wisdom or as a work of art.
— C.P. Snow
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
Serious, beautiful and affecting, what makes Stoner so impressive is the contained intensity the author and character share.
— Irving Howe, New Republic
Please treat yourself and read both of these books!