There was a time when you’d hear quite often, in magazines or newspaper articles, about ‘The greatest (insert film/book/album) you’ve never (seen/read/heard)’.
I’d often read these with a mix of annoyance and appreciation. An appreciation that something potentially excellent was being brought to my attention. An annoyance that a) the writer was assuming that I didn’t know it already (me being daft, I generally didn’t) and b) that I actually didn’t know about it already.
Stoner, by John Williams, is one of these. A fairly recent one, from 2013, where it was seemingly rediscovered and made its way across the desk’s of various notables, who collectively read it, gasped and couldn’t hand out quotes and recommendations fast enough.
Written in 1965, reissued in 2003 and featured in a BBC article in 2013, after it became Waterstone’s Book of the Year, Stoner is a very queer tale of publishing success. Inasmuch as it wasn’t a success. Going out of print within 12 months of publication, it showed every sign of being a failure.
It is not a failure. It is simply one of the finest books I have ever read.
Telling the life of William Stoner, a dustbowl farmer’s son sent to study agriculture, but falling in love with literature, this is a book about the soul. It tell’s Stoner’s unassuming life, with all of its inconsequential to-ing and fro-ing, in such tender and emotional ways. It’s almost impossible to work out how you’re so entranced by this procession of simple life events. His birth, his education, his marriage, his career. Nothing extraordinary happens to him, nothing outlandish of groundbreaking. Even the two World Wars are mere footnotes to Stoner’s life.
What Stoner is is a study of the immense importance of an individual, without that individual needing to be spectacular. Williams writes with sadness and honesty, opening up Stoner’s soul so that the things he lets slide, to allow stronger wills and more fragile hearts to prevail before him, are not seen as weakness. They are the acts of a gentle and unprepossesing man. A man who doesn’t want to be a bother. A man who loves and is passionate, but who will be sidelined and largely forgotten, because he won’t impose on anyone. It’s painfully sad.
Too many books are called life changing, although for many different people, for many different reasons, I know that they are. This book may not change your life, not in any big way at least, but it might remind you that people are important, and that your own impact on the world is measure in millimetres and not miles.