Stoner by John Williams. A book I didn’t want to buy because I didn’t like the title. A book then bought for me by my dear friend. And this is what I thought:
As the back cover suggests, it is about a man who is not particularly exceptional, who lives a fairly normal life, and who makes no particular mark on the world. But it is also much more than that. On the one hand, it is a thoughtful, understated and measured – even detached – novel. But at the same time it manages to convey the struggles and emotions that lie below the surface of one man – and also, I suspect, of a great many of us. It shows how the most ordinary of lives can be extraordinary, but without bells and whistles, without an overloaded eulogy when it is all over; just the mere achievement of creating a life with what we have and what we can. In that sense, the book manages to be sad and empowering at the same time. We can all be William Stoner – small and yet really filling the space we are given, the space that we make for ourselves. That in itself is a worthy goal.
But what I also took from this book was the force that Stoner draws from having found his vocation. I hesitated to use the word “passion” instead of “vocation”, but it would not have been right. He is lucky enough to have an epiphany and as a result – rather than becoming a farmer like his father before him – he becomes a teacher, which seems to suit him. Yes, “passion” would have been the wrong word, but his work gives his life a frame, a purpose. It also gives him the strength to stand his ground when required. On another level, it literally provides him with a place to go, a refuge when he needs it. I liked this. Not everyone will be a megastar, launch their own successful coaching business, or decide to live from their talents as a painter (or whatever). Some of us will continue to live their (our) “little lives” – the challenge is to fill these lives with purpose and content.
A final aspect that touched a cord with me was the impact we have on our children. Children are sponges and will pick up – and be shaped by – our most careless or unconsious messages. Probably the most heart-breaking thing about this book is the relationship between the daughter and her two parents. Or rather I should say relationships – because she has very different relationships with her two parents. The outcome is not pretty and should be a lesson to us all.
Should you read this book? Yes, and savour it.