Thursday, January 1, 2015

Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

This Story Begins at the Protagonist's Death and then Takes Us Back

A Journey with a Man in Academia

My goal is to finish as many books in one calendar year as I can and this year I did not live up to previous years. I think a lot of things got in the way - including some very positive things like exercising outside more (which meant less time on a treadmill) and more time with family. Additionally in the last few months I have had a smart phone for the first time and I think that becomes a huge time waster. I haven't had to carry a book around to occupy myself in those unanticipated moments of down time so my resolution for this year is to go back to that, even if I can play Boggle for hours on my phone.

All that being said, I finished the last few pages (about 10) so this book is going to be the first one completed for 2015. I completed 33 books that I would recommend this past year and a few other that I did not recommend.

Stoner is not the most cheerful of subjects but it is well written, starting with the death of William Stoner, the central character, that was a professor of literature at the University. The introduction of him as a character is that of a mild mannered instructor who will be forgotten almost as soon as he passed and without much contribution beyond the impact he made directly with his students. We then go back in time to almost the beginning, where Stoner came from; a small farm to very poor parents, who struggle more each year to pull from the ground. Stoner believes he is destined to this same life, where every day is the same and the toil of hard work prematurely ages you but his father comes up with the idea to have his son go the university to study agriculture. While Stoner never visualized this for himself he obeys and make the journey to the university, staying with relatives and helping with their farm for his room and board.

So begins the transformation of William Stoner, who dutifully begins his academic career taking the mandatory courses along with his pursuit of agriculture, until he is stimied by a sophmore level english literature course and an instructor who challenges him to think very differently. This begins the journey to a new course of study and a new life that ultimately leads to Stoner becoming a professor much like this original instructure who challenged him.

While this life is very different than what he and his parents had originally conceived, it's not necessarily any happier or less isolating. We watch as Stoner goes though the natural conventions of life, climbing the academic ladder, choosing a wife, standing up when his ethics call to him, teaching students to love literature, watching his loved ones pass on from the older generation, and falling in love. Through his life Stoner holds on to a quiet dignity, but is often restrained in ways that end up constricting his ability to be happy. He is a man who cares and holds a passion deep inside of him but is more like his parents even if he has moved a different sort of life.

This book is beautifully written and I highly recommend it.

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