William Stoner is born at the end of the 19th 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, far 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.
©1965 John Williams (P)2010 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
“A perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, it takes your breath away." (Morris Dickstein, New York Times Book Review )
“A masterly portrait of a truly virtuous and dedicated man.” (New Yorker)
“An exquisite study, bleak as Hopper, of a hopelessly honest academic at a meretricious Midwestern university. I had not known…that the kind of unsparing portrait of failed marriage shown in Stoner existed before John Cheever.” (Los Angeles Times)
Say something about yourself!
A sad, interesting story of a dedicated teacher abused by fate. The characterizations are brilliantly written, with Stoner a supreme man of pathos. I'm glad to have found this book.
I'd listen to the book over and over again if I didn't think it would make me weep in public places.
Stoner is -- well, a singular literary creation.
The reader stands back and lets the book do its job.
I just loved it.
I found it moving and some beautiful writing, but so bleak, so frustrating that he was unable to be more assertive and express his needs, and he was such a withered character in himself – depicted powerfully by the writer. However my sympathy was engaged with him and the other unfulfilled characters – his bitter wife, his destroyed daughter, the envious, revengeful and bitter academic rivals, and his briefly involved parents - like scarecrows in themselves.
I love listening to books when cycling, paddleboarding, etc but I press pause when I need to concentrate. Its safer & I don't lose the plot!
This is quite a downbeat, somewhat depressing, story about a very passive country boy who goes to college to learn agriculture, and switches to become an English teacher. He repeatedly, frustratingly, allows other people's actions to influence his life profoundly. He is talented but unselfish, resilient and tolerant to a fault. He allows other people to suppress his happiness and seems to accept whatever misery others inflict upon him without offering much resistance.
Despite this, it is a good book to listen to. The story is well written and well read, and engages the listener with its poetic melancholy charm.
this book was published in 1965
it sold all of 2,000 copies that year
looking back, we probably shouldn't be surprised
it was later rediscovered by european critics
they had the wisdom to recognize its' true worth
it is a real masterpiece of understated beauty
how does an introverted intellectual live life on his terms ?
how can a man fight the world's pressing him into its' mold ?
how can you recover from betrayal and disappointment ?
the book uses a college professor's career to answer these questions
the steady adversity of midwestern life provides the plot
the book is an extraordinary meditation on an ordinary life
I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
Picture a typical epic fantasy story wherein a plucky hero with unique powers leaves his hometown to fight against the forces of evil to save the world. John Williams' historical novel Stoner (1965), about a thoughtful, diligent, and intelligent (but not brilliant) academic everyman who never travels, learns to drive, or becomes a full professor, would appear to be the opposite kind of story. According to the first paragraphs of the novel, William Stoner entered the University of Missouri at age 19 in 1910, earned his PhD and became an instructor there during WWI, and died in 1956 as an assistant professor mostly forgotten by students and colleagues. Why would anyone want to read a novel filling in the details of such a life!?
Such is John Williams' skill, empathy, and imagination, however, that from the moment Stoner has an epiphany in his sophomore survey of English literature class when his ironic professor Archer Sloane momentarily loses himself in Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 and then asks him what the poem is saying to him over a span of three hundred years, and he can only raise his hands and utter an abortive, "It means," and so unwittingly falls in love with literature, we care for Stoner, so much so that reading his attempt to live for his love against overwhelming odds, including an inimical department chair, a nightmarish graduate student, a self-centered, unloving, and neurotic wife, and, of course, his own surface equanimity, diffidence, and indifference, becomes a page-turning and at times unbearably suspenseful adventure. Indeed, as Professor Sloane tells Stoner when he's trying to decide whether or not to go fight in World War I, "There are wars and defeats and victories of the human race that are not military and that are not recorded in the annals of history," and Stoner's adult life and career are, finally, as heroic as that of any martial epic fantasy hero.
Williams excels at concisely writing historical backgrounds and human relationships, so that though the novel is less than three-hundred pages, it convincingly conveys everything from Stoner's special field (the Latin tradition and Medieval and Renaissance literature), a tense PhD oral preliminary examination (that brought back my own nightmarish memories), and his fraught relationship with his wife (the best Stoner can believe is that they've become "like old friends or exhausted enemies") to the cultural climate of big events like World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. (This is a quietly anti-war novel: "he saw hatred and suspicion become a kind of madness that swept across the land like a swift plague; he saw young men go again to war [in Korea], marching eagerly to a senseless doom, as if in the echo of a nightmare.")
Williams also writes vivid descriptions, of, for example, people:
"It was the face of a matinee idol. Long and thin and mobile, it was nevertheless strongly featured; his forehead was high and narrow, with heavy veins, and his thick waving hair, the color of ripe wheat, swept back from it in a somewhat theatrical pompadour. He dropped his cigarette on the floor, ground it beneath his sole, and spoke.
'I am Lomax.' He paused; his voice, rich and deep, articulated his words precisely, with a dramatic resonance. 'I hope I have not disrupted your meeting.'"
"He lay on the bed and looked out the single window until the dawn came, until there were no shadows upon the land, until it stretched gray and barren and infinite before him."
And southern evenings:
"The dogwoods . . . were in full bloom, and they trembled like soft clouds, translucent and tenuous, before his gaze. The sweet scent of dying lilac blossoms drenched the air."
Throughout, with irony and affection Williams expresses the hermetic yet vulnerable world of American academia, which, as Stoner's brilliant young graduate student friend puts it early on, is no ivory tower but an asylum or rest home for the infirm, for people who could never succeed in the real world outside.
Robin Field, does a fine reading of the audiobook, though perhaps the quality of his voice is too good at expressing sensitive fatigue.
Williams' novel, then, is anything but bleak and boring. His depiction of Stoner's evolution from an ignorant young man from a sterile farm with spindly chickens, boney cows, and prematurely aged parents into a university literature instructor unable to express in classes or papers what he most profoundly knew and finally into a middle-aged "teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man," able to communicate his love of literature, in which "the blackest and coldest print" could express the mystery of the mind and heart, is a quiet triumph. For all he has been saying with passion of mind and flesh throughout his career is, "Look! I am alive."
This is possibly the most depressing book I've ever read.
It's not grimdark, it's not maudlin or sentimental, it's not a hopeless tale of a broken life. It's the biography of a young farmboy who goes off to college to learn agricultural science, falls in love with English literature, and spends the rest of his life as an English professor. And through bad luck, principled refusal, and a certain amount of passivity, enters into a loveless embittered marriage, watches his career stagnate, his daughter become estranged, and everything he ever loved fall away like browning leaves. Except his love of literature, which never leaves him and is often his sole consolation across the long years.
The author, a former English professor, sets his novel in a university much like the one where he taught, though he assures his former colleagues in the foreword that it is entirely fictional. His familiarity with the ins and outs of university life and the vicious nature of academia (as the old saying goes, the fights are so bitter because the stakes are so small) bring Stoner to life in hushed academic vivacity.
William Stoner, a tall, lanky young man, has the beginnings of a promising career when he sets out on his academic path. The publication of his first book heralds what the rest of his life will be like - it is received as a "competent" work by reviewers. It would be easy to say that Stoner is a tale of frustrated mediocrity, except that Stoner the man is vividly self-aware, aware even that he has the potential for something more that he will never quite achieve.
First it's his wife, Edith, a pale, tall, awkward girl from an affluent family, whom Stoner woos and wins because she can't seem to think of a good reason to say no. And from the moment of their wedding night, it's a disaster, his marriage to this spiritless, unhappy woman who will first be swallowed in depression and then wage subversive war against her husband, seeing that he has no peace or solitude at home, no comfort at her side, no hope of moving on to a better opportunity, and worst of all, when she sees that their daughter takes after her father with quiet, devoted seriousness, goes about driving a wedge between them and in the process destroys her daughter's spirit as well.
At work, in one of the few moments when Stoner stands his ground, against an unqualified, farcically unprepared graduate student pushed forward for a doctorate by one of his colleagues, this turns into the defining millstone of his career, because it makes his colleague, who will soon thereafter become the Department Chair, a bitter enemy. And so Stoner will spend the next 20 years with a superior who despises him and sees to it that nothing good ever comes his way.
In the end, William Stoner stands tall and alone, stooped by years and adversity, but never quite defeated. He has stood on his principles and suffered for them. He has had the chance to take the easy way out more than once, and never has, never abandoned his responsibilities or his promises, no matter how much they cost him. He is a man alone and apart.
This book was recommended by several people whose opinions I respect. For the first third, I wasn't sure. A quiet book about an unassuming man whose life is plagued by disappointment. By the end, I was so gripped I couldn't stop listening, and was moved to tears. In fact, the last chapter is one of the most powerful I can think of, all in its quiet way. The narrator is perfect, and he reads with a subtle dignity that matches the character and the novel. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
"I thought I could do it quietly without upsetting anyone."
How much of life do you lose if you never impose on anyone else? How much selfishness should you indulge in, drag others into? Can you ever really be alive by always being polite, never being a bother, letting life carry you along like driftwood? These were some of the questions, and hard truths I had to face while reading this remarkable novel. And I use the word remarkable not because I want to toss a superlative around, but because the book is remarkable. In fact I think a case could be made for this almost forgotten novel to be considered in the conversation of Great American Novels.
Stoner is a unique literary 'hero'. He is an American mid-western farm boy from a hardworking, moral farm family. In a Steinbeck novel the Stoner's would be backdrop, the sort of family he'd mention in passing as being one of the unspoken for millions America is made up of: the hard working, quiet, self sufficient, good and decent Americans who are the salt of the earth. Yet William Stoner is different; he's a man apart. Though he knows farm life, he's not particularly attracted to or interested in it, he only does it because life has, until yet, not offered him anything else. But when he's given the chance to go to college he discovers he has a passion you wouldn't normally attribute to the farm: a love of literature. He discovers he is not a man meant to bend his back all day, but to use his mind instead.
This discovery occurs suddenly, without warning and from a man long dead. It is William Shakespeare who almost literally speaks to him. "Do you hear him?" Professor Sloane asks him in class. Shakespeare speaks to you across three centuries. Shakespeare has imposed himself on Stoner, has grabbed hold of him, and changed his life.
But this is not the story of a man necessarily bettered by the experience of discovering education and art. Though Stoner decides to pursue a life of education and teaching, you sometimes wonder what his life would have been like had he not made this discovery. Would he have wound up like his parents, perhaps, but when WW1 broke out he may have gone over to France and not come back, or come back a changed man. There's a lot of potential 'what ifs' at the beginning of one's life.
And this book is all about potential.
That's why it's so startling at the end of the novel when he realizes he's 60 years old. Though we've lived his life through the course of the novel through all his failures, and modest successes, we are hit with the cold reality that there is just not anymore time left. He's made all his choices and, as he keeps repeating "What did you expect?"
Yet this is not a cynical or angry novel. Even in moments of quiet, suffocating despair, of years of a failed marriage, failed relationships, failed career opportunities, this is not a book about a man who is just a sad case for us to pity. William Stoner is like so many very real people, he's a person trying to get by in the world, trying to do some good, but not quite able to bridge the gap between his own internal passions and heat with other people's heart and their warmth. He's closed off, he lives in his own mind, and he always looks for reasons why he can't act, why he shouldn't say or do a thing because he doesn't feel it's right, or his place to do so. He is not a bold man, but rather a man who works hard, does the best he can with what he has, and then, in the end, must accept those choices.
Artistically the novel is a marvel. From the sparse and clear writing, to the near meta-fictional exploration of how literature and books can help us explore the human condition while at the same time needing to withdraw from humanity to experience these books. In the end he holds his own book in his hands and though the contents of that book might not paint a clear picture of the author, it does, as least, offer proof that he existed and contributed even just a little bit to the human species. Or in the dedication of Katherine's book, the initials W.S. are all that is left between the two of them, a fragment, but at least something.
There is continually subtle word play, the use of a line such as "He felt a distant closeness to her", distant closeness in opposition but right next to each other, or him describing his marriage as a stalemate, is he the mate who is stale, is she, are they both? There is the repeated imagery of masks and mask like faces, which in less talented hands would have been a bit heavy handed, but here fits the characters and the tone. Even when the novel pushes the boundaries of imagery, such as with his description of the poignancy of a lone grave enhanced by the vastness of a desert, it never feels out of place or forced. Every word is necessary.
And structurally the novel is near perfect in that this is a first person account written in the third person. We are close to Stoner but never too close, we are always kept at a distance. The narrator is most likely Stoner himself since only twice do we ever get a POV shift, both times with his wife in acts of self discovery, as if their will and imposition spills over into the narration and forces us to have to come to terms with another human being.
This is the true art of the novel, the life we live with Stoner, the slow wearing down upon him, his reasoning for acting, or more often not acting, and the understanding we get of this person who to an outsider would seem a cantankerous and impossible man to know. We learn a little about what it means to be William Stoner, and perhaps, to better see the world through the intentions of the people around us.
The novel is sad but never pessimistic - it's realistic in the best possible use of the word. This is the sort of book a writer like Raymond Carver would immediately relate to and even write about. William Stoner is a sort of mythical American every-man, a man of the earth who is also educated, a man of many faces whose expression never changes, a man never quite sure of his place in the world but is willing to work damn hard to keep what he does have. Stoner was remarkable in that he was completely unremarkable.
We even get in the end the book's, and perhaps our own culture's unspoken philosophy about the meaning of life when he is with the doctor, "it was foolishness, he knew, but he did not protest, it would have been unkind for him to do so."
Stoner is very much a book that will appeal to people who love books and love book learning, however, there is a warning here I believe, and that is the more we learn, the more we try to know, the more we will discover how little we actually known and understand and that there will never be enough time to read and to learn all we need to know because the rabbit hole never ends. Perhaps we would be better off putting the books down and going outside and imposing ourselves on the world. Perhaps Stoner could be read as the great anti-book, or, at least in a meta sense, a slight nod towards American anti-intellectualism; too much knowledge could be bad for you.
At the very least, the book is pretty clear about never being able to ever understand another human being by just reading books about them. Stoner read his whole life away and barely made an impression on any human he ever met aside from his wife, Finch, Lomax, and Katherine Driscoll. Perhaps if he'd found a place to put down his cap and gown from his college graduation he might have lived more.
Yet in the end these are the choices of his life and we are reminded of our own choices, our own mortality and our potential. It would be easy to feel a bit defeated at the end of the novel, to think life is just sort of pointless and full of misery, and in a way it is, but it isn't, too. In the final pages we watch Stoner hearing the teenagers laughing as they walk across his lawn, barely touching the ground, and we long to be with them, not him. We long to live better, but we also understand our limitations.
It must have been very difficult for john Williams to write such a depressing book. Robin Field did an excellent job reading. Would look for him again.
An account of an ordinary life beautifully read by Robin Field A must read
I have listened to a lot of books but this is just the most amazing book. So simple, emotional and true. Very hard to put in words. An ordinary life not a hollywood one. I cried when I got to the end. Will miss Mr Stoner
Not sure this does compare to anything else. Maybe a little like Willa Cather
The graduate student scene when the student is being quizzed by the 4 profesors. Very tense!
Deeply sad book but immensely true. I did cry
I'm going to be very evangelical about this book -everyone should read it.
Disappointment as the text was quite good, just the reading style was tedious in the extreme
Avoid the audiobook. If you are looking for an account of a boring, aimless and obvioulsy doomed existence try reading it on your kindle.
"pause for thought"
Stoner is one of the most important books I have read
The thin reedy quality
Learn where to draw the line
"Magnificent writing. Moving story of life."
Identifying with human frailties.
Stoner, an everyman: unique in who he is, common in how imperfect he is.
His moments with his lover.
No, I was happy to come back to it but missed it in between listening times!
Highly recommend this for the quality of writing and the beauty of the story.
"Not as depressing as the blurb suggests"
This is one of those audiobooks which can be made or marred by the reader. In this case, the reader adopts a lugubrious and melancholy voice which makes Stoner (man and book) seem more miserable than he and it actually are. Here is an ordinary man of no great achievement who is stubborn when he should give way and submits when he should assert himself. There are a lot of us like this. Yet this is an interesting book and I enjoyed it and it is well read. Recommended
"A very sweet story"
sweet, gentle, sad
I could quite easily read this in one go.
This was a book of its time. This unremarkable man had a sad life which he wouldn't lead now
"A thoroughly unenjoyable listen"
This is my second John Williams novel. The first was good, but I won't try another
The performance was rasping and pedantic, like someone reading from the bible and making an effort to be as dull as possible.
I could not listen to the end. I don't mind that the story is sad and depressing. I do mind that Stoner's behaviour is not only exasperating but unconvincing.
"An Unexpected Classic"
This is a dry, quiet, stoical description of a complete life beginning in the 1890s and ending in the late 1950s. At the beginning, it seemed too dry, and I wondered whether I should continue. But, gradually, as the life of this quiet, socially-inhibited academic moves forward, it slowly exerted a grip, and I started to get eager to get back to it. It becomes a story about life itself. Happiness is ephemeral and Stoner often finds himself wondering what life should mean. A failed marriage, a beloved daughter who becomes distant, a touching but doomed love affair, and an academic career crowned by the writing of one solid but soon forgotten study of medieval English. It has moments of intense sadness and stoicism and the constant physicality of our ageing is a constant backcloth. Stoner reflects at the end, "If I had been stronger; if I had known more; if I could have understood". Unfortunately, none of us have a script before we start. We have to work it out as we go along. This novel is psychologically astute and captures the essence of what it means to be alive.I loved it. It was one of the best books I have come across. As I listened, I felt an excitement to be discovering a classic, where simple prose, has extraordinary, sometimes breathtaking, depth and power. Superb.
"A beautifully written book, beautifully read."
I may well. The gentleness of the story tells persuades me that there is much I will gain from a re-read.
Firstly, the start, describing him home life on the farm and later when he discovered what true love was.
Try it - it is different and better.
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