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Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams came highly recommended by a good friend. She told me this book is a must-read for folks in love with literature. What’s more, it even achieved a cult status after 50 years of its publishing. And so, with high expectations, I began reading this campus novel set in the University of Missouri. The novel chronicles the life of titular protagonist William Stoner.

A farm boy, Stoner is sent by his father to study agriculture in the university. As part of the curriculum, he takes up English Literature in the sophomore year. And studying this subject changes Stoner’s life forever. He realises that literature has answers to life’s biggest questions, and by studying it, he could awaken to life itself. The author Williams sums up this feeling beautifully. He writes: “The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print–the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly.”

As his love for literature deepens, Stoner stops attending the agriculture classes altogether. He takes up humanities and dedicates himself to studying literature instead. It is as if his only aim in life is to immerse himself in books. And eventually, he even goes on to teach Literature in the university.

Every sentence in the novel tries to convey this passion that Stoner has for literature. Stoner is an eternal love story with words and books. The novel, however, is not just about his love for the subject and teaching. It is also about his failed love with his wife, and his passionate love affair with a younger teacher. This side of Stoner is full of disappointments–he is married to the wrong woman, he has an extramarital affair, his relationship with his daughter is strained, and he is humiliated at work. By the end of his life, Stoner has seen it all–failure, dejection, and disappointment. But what remains constant is his passion for literature.  

The book is painfully beautiful, touching the right chords. There is constant melancholy in every page; a pain that makes a reader empathise with Stoner. His victory becomes our victory, his pain becomes our pain, and his story becomes our story. All thanks to John Williams’ simple, yet powerful prose.

Some books narrate the story of a time in history, whereas some others tell a story of the distant future. Many others are about heroes. But Stoner by John Williams is about an ordinary man, and his extraordinary love for learning. The novel is a must-read for all those who think their ordinary life has no extraordinary story to tell. 

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