Stoner by John Williams is a singularity in the world of literature. Having recently finished Frankenstein, declared the best book I’d read for a long time, this has taken the cake. About a similar monster of blind enthusiasms and love, I think Tom Hanks’ review on the insider cover says it best:
It’s simply a story about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher. But it’s one of the most fascinating things you’ll ever come across.
I have a vague recollection of someone recommending it to me and was intrigued to find it on the bookshelves of my humble host in Amsterdam last week (thanks, Joyce). I started it with very few expectations – how fascinating can the life of an English teacher be?
It wasn’t a book that grabbed me from the first paragraph, but this afternoon as I was desperately flipping through the final 80 pages between private English lessons of my own – uncharacteristically standing on every escalator in the metro, digging further, shuffling through crowds, and even climbing stairs, with an index finger intendedly placed on the lines last read, attempting to always be moving forward – I really came to appreciate the power behind such a simple story.
A book of immense humanity, my professional relations to the main character and theme should only be read as incidental. That said, for anyone working in education, it should be required reading. A career in education has its stigmas – ‘can’t do, teach’ – and the rewards are only there if you appreciate the work – seeing people develop and constantly learning – but stories like this bring the entirety of it all into perspective. Stories like this reflect the idea that working in education is more or less motivated and dictated, for better or worse, by the private life one leads outside the walls of education.
From a farmer’s son, to a poorly married, mediocre university-level English professor with various awkwardities, inclinations, enthusiasms, and the standard love of the written word, this novel shines in its ability to bring the subtleties and politics of education to light.
I’ll not soon forget such a book nor the central question, something I often mull over in my work promoting the Humanities: What is the true nature of the University?