I think Stoner is my favorite book of 2015 so far. Yes, I know I’ve only finished three books so far and am about a third of the way through my fourth. But one of my favorite books of 2014 was T.C. Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done, and that was the first one I read last year.
Stoner is the story of William Stoner, who leaves his home in rural Missouri to go to college. The plan is for him to get a degree in agriculture and come home to work on the family farm. And everything goes along just fine until Bill takes a survey of English literature class taught by Archer Sloane, the man who will become his mentor. He finds himself struggling in this class, and yet also finding something in himself that he didn’t know was there. He drops his science classes and changes his major. He wanders the stacks in the library, “among the thousands of books, inhaling the musty odor of leather, cloth, and drying page as if it were an exotic incense. Sometimes he would pause, remove a volume from the shelves, and hold it for a moment in his large hands, which tingled at the still unfamiliar feel of spine and board and unresisting page. Then he would leaf through the book, reading a paragraph here and there, his stiff fingers careful as they turned the pages, as if in their clumsiness they might tear and destroy what they took such pains to uncover (15-16).” Stoner loves books; it’s a pure and true love and Williams does this amazing job of showing us that in this passage. Aren’t writers supposed to show, not tell? Isn’t that a thing? He does it here in spades. When Stoner is a fourth year student, he goes to see Archer Sloane, and Professor Sloane recommends he stay at the university and go to graduate school. The thought had never occurred to Stoner before, but when Sloane says to him, “ ‘But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner? Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher (20)’” he seems to know who he is for the first time. That’s how I felt when I figured out I wanted to be a veterinarian. That may have been my favorite part of the whole book, with one exception much later on in Stoner’s life.
The early twentieth century happens, but Stoner remains blissfully apart from the worst of it: the United States joins World War I, but Stoner elects to remain behind, much to the dismay of his friend Gordon Finch. Archer Sloane, however, is philosophical about Stoner’s decision: “’A war doesn’t merely kill off a few thousand or a few hundred thousand young men. It kills off something in a people that can never be brought back. And if a people goes through enough wars, pretty soon all that’s left is the brute, the creature that we—you and I and others like us—have brought up from the slime. The scholar should not be asked to destroy what he has aimed his life to build (36).’” That sentiment is pretty pretentious, I guess, but it seems to be a philosophy that Stoner lives his life by. The Great Depression and World War II also seem to go by with nary a mention though classes do seem more empty during WWII. I guess life did go on as usual during these times, much as my day-to-day life has not been altered significantly by the War on Terror. My last exposure to a history class was high school: in my mind, during the Depression everyone was sitting around barefoot with no food and dust storms were blowing through the streets; and during WWII everyone was working in munitions factories, and all the men were fighting in the war. I am very aware that this is a childish worldview, but I only recently figured out that not all Germans were Nazis during WWII. Please don’t judge me!
Stoner’s life is hardly an idyll of academia and reading, much as I wish it were. He marries a strange woman named Edith, who, were she alive today, would probably be on several antidepressants. They have one daughter who Stoner loves very much, but their relationship becomes strained as she grows up due to forces out of his control. And by this I mean Edith. She seems to resent the closeness Stoner and their daughter, Grace, have, and sets out to usurp it. Neither Grace nor Stoner seem to know what to do about it, so they just let it happen. I found the Stoner family incredibly tragic. First, Edith is so unhappy. I don’t think she ever wanted to marry anyone, but feels that she has to, and Bill doesn’t seem awful, and he wants to marry her. But once they’re married neither of them knows what to do. And heaven forbid that anyone actually speak frankly in the 1920’s. This book is third person limited and we only have Stoner’s thoughts. I would have loved to have known what was going on in Edith’s head, especially when she sets out to separate Grace and Stoner.
And Bill Stoner’s work life is filled with the drama that is typical of a bunch of academics working together. Archer Sloane dies at his desk and his eventual replacement as head of the department doesn’t love Bill, especially after he figures out that the head’s graduate student protégée is something of a charlatan. There is this awesome scene during said graduate student’s qualifying exams for his doctorate, in which Stoner systematically reveals how little the student knows about literature. After this incident, however, Bill gets relegated to teaching lower division composition classes. Eventually this is rectified after Stoner decides to start teaching one of his sections of freshman composition as if it were his former medieval language and literature upper division/graduate seminar that was taken away from him when he and the department head (named Lomax) went to war. This little revolt on our protagonist’s part was wonderful to read. I was cheering for him on the inside and smiling the whole time.
The most common complaint I read in negative reviews of Stoner on amazon and goodreads was that “nothing happened!” Of course nothing happened. This is the story of a life of a pretty ordinary man whose one great love is literature. What kind of excitement does one expect in the life of a college professor? He isn’t Indiana Jones, for heavens sake! The language is beautiful in its simplicity, and Williams created this character, William Stoner, who I just loved. I’m not sure how good a teacher he was, or how good a husband and father he was, but I know he loved his work and loved his daughter, and loved his wife at the start. He was a man ahead of his time, quite possibly. I definitely recommend this book, with the caveat that it’s not very plot-driven, though things do happen, and they happen in a linear fashion, which is always nice. I once thought that I would want to be on a college campus for my whole life, like Stoner, but that didn’t end up being my life plan. I do miss that environment, though, and it was nice to go back there for a time. I found myself imagining the UC Davis campus as it was when I was an undergraduate, all the buildings I spent time in, all the classrooms. And then I remembered all the classes I hated, and all the long nights studying. I was less nostalgic after that. But it is a time in my life that is over, that I’ll never go back to. It’s funny to think about—I spent so many years of my life in school, and I’ll never be in school again. At least not that I’m planning on. My husband used to say that there was no way I’ll ever be done with school. He was convinced I’d end up back at the university, but I really don’t think it’s going to happen. I think that going to continuing education is going to be enough for me—there I get the fun of learning, but no tests and no studying. It’s the best of both worlds. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you guys should give Stoner a try. I think it’s a special book. It’ll take you back to college.