Stoner ~ John Williams

9780670671243I’m really not very good at climbing on bandwagons, especially where books that are being hyped in the media are concerned. This is a character trait I noticed first when Watership Down was the must read title one summer back in the early seventies.  I wasn’t going to succumb to public opinion and read a novel about rabbits (for goodness sake) even though I was blithely prepared to say good morning to the numerous representatives of the species that I passed every day on my early morning cycle rides into Stratford.  Eventually, of course, I gave into the pressure and finally realised what all the song and dance was about, months after everyone else had had the pleasure of Richard Adam’s insightful commentary on both extremes of human society.

You would have thought, then,  that I would have learnt my lesson.  If that many people are singing the praises of a particular novel it is just possible that it may have something to recommend it.  Nevertheless, despite all the publicity, despite the fact that every time I’ve walked into Staff House at the University for the past year I have seen someone reading it, it has taken the appearance of John William’s Stoner on one of my book group lists to get me to pick up a copy and to discover what a really wonderful book it is.

I could sing the praises of this book in so many ways.  I could tell you about how beautifully it is written.  There is nothing spectacular about the writing, nothing intensely lyrical or poetic, but every word is placed with care and precision and there is a rhythm about it that echoes the rhythm of the life of the novel’s central character, University English Professor, William Stoner. For the most part this is a steady beat reflective of what some have seen as a dull and even a sad life, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments that elicit in the reader real emotion, most often in my case anger at the way in which other people take advantage of a man who never really comes to understand the lengths to which some individuals will go to get what they want, regardless of the damage that may be done to others in the process.

I could tell you about the accuracy of the portrait it paints of life in the University sector.  For example, even though many things have changed in the years between the early part of the twentieth century depicted here and the present day, I’m afraid that the departmental in-fighting still goes on.  I have met Holly Lomax, the Professor who is determined to get his own way about a student who everyone else can see is struggling, insisting that he be allowed to continue even though eventually not only will the student be damaged by the experience but so too will any others he comes into contact with.  I have actually worked with Holly Lomax.  There have been the occasional days when I have specifically wanted to strangle Holly Lomax – for the ultimate good of the student, the department, the University, the world.  Like Stoner, I have resisted.

But what I actually want to tell you about in praise of this novel is what Williams has to say about the joy of being a teacher, because for me this is the ultimate truth and the heartbeat at the very core of this book. From the moment when his mentor, Sloane, asks Stoner

‘Don’t you understand about yourself yet?  You’re going to be a teacher.’

Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded.  Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, ‘Are you sure?’

‘I’m sure,’ Sloane said softly.

‘How can you tell? How can you be sure?’

‘It’s love, Mr Stoner,’ Sloane said cheerfully. ‘You are in love. It’s as simple as that.’

to the point of his retirement dinner where after a couple of false starts Stoner finally says

I have taught at this University for nearly forty years.  I do not know what I would have done if I had not been a teacher.  If I had not taught, I might have – ‘ He paused, as if distracted.  Then he said, with a finality, ‘I want to thank you all for letting me teach.’

Stoner is, quite simply, a teacher.  He is defined by his job, and by the way in which he does his job, he defines what it should mean to teach.

I wish I had read this book by the time I retired, I would have plagiarised that final speech unmercifully.  But I suppose that would have been to suggest that I was something like as good a teacher as Stoner is.  That would be difficult.

Interestingly some of the things that show him at his best are times when Williams tells us that he upsets various students.  The most obvious of these is the case of Holly Lomax’s protégé, Charles Walker, who Stoner refuses (rightly) to pass through his oral examination as part of his progress towards a doctoral qualification.

‘God damn it,’ Lomax shouted. ‘Do you realise what you’re doing, Stoner?  Do you realise what you’re doing to the boy?’

‘Yes,’ Stoner said quietly, ‘and I’m sorry for him.  I am preventing him from getting his degree, and I am preventing him from teaching in a college or university.  Which is precisely what I want to do.  For him to be a teacher would be a – disaster.’

Sometimes your job as a teacher is to prevent your students from following a path that would damage not only them but also many generations of other students.  It is never easy, but if you really are a teacher you have to do it.  Just occasionally, I had to take the same decision in respect of students who wanted to be primary teachers.   It hurt, but the thousand children they could well have encountered in a forty year teaching career had to come first.  The thought of Charles Walker being allowed to stand in front of a class of undergraduates frightened me so much I couldn’t read on for a time.

Less immediately apparent to the non-professional eye may be the moment when Stoner reflects on the way his teaching style unsettles some of his students.  He gets so caught by his enthusiasm that he stutter[s], gesticulate[s], and boldly, proudly displays 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.  Many of his students respond to this with renewed efforts of their own, showing hints of imagination and the revelation of tentative love.  However, there are also those who had been able theretofore to plod through his courses by the repetition of mechanical steps who begin to look at him with puzzlement and resentment.

Teaching is not about rote learning, it is about enthusiasm and inspiration, but there will always be some students and a great many people in power who will be frightened of the freedom of thought that not only allows but actually encourages.  A good teacher wouldn’t have it any other way.

As you will have noticed, I have now climbed on one of my soapboxes.  It is time to get off and to say simply that I wish I hadn’t waited as long as I did to read this book and to urge those of you who may not have yet done so to get hold of a copy as soon as you possibly can.

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33 thoughts on “Stoner ~ John Williams

  1. I’ve been meaning to read Stoner ever since I started reading all of the hype around it but, like you, I put off reading it – I don’t know why, because it sounds exactly like the sort of book I like! Anyway, your review has put this book firmly at the top of to-read list, it sounds wonderful.

  2. I’m with you completely about hype, Alex, which I think has become considerably worse since the old Watership Down days! I think that Stoner was taken up by booksellers who had read it, loved it and wanted others to do the same so it came road-tested. It’s working its way up my pile.

    1. That’s an interesting thought, Susan. There are so many more avenues through which something can become hyped nowadays and there is certainly no guarantee that its merit has anything to do with it. Now this book definitely does merit they hype.

  3. I still haven’t read “Watership Down” for the same reasons as you, though it’s now on my TBR pile. This book “Stoner” sounds like a really fine one about academia; thanks for recommending it.

    1. I am like you in resisting hype – and sometimes regretting it. Stoner sounds essential reading and it does seem the novel deserves elevation to modern classic status from Vintage paperbacks (the same as Richard Yates).

    2. It is SO. Anyone who has worked in the University sector is certainly going to recognise the life described. Which might well be why I’ve seen it being read around Staff House so much.

  4. I also resist hype and haven’t read Watership Down, (and I almost missed Beloved by Morrison because of this trait). but I read Stoner before it got hyped but way after it got published. I loved it but I never dreamed it would be taken up this way!

    I really appreciated your review though, Alex. I noted how the book was partly about teaching and I remember that, but that’s not what I (or my reading group) got focused on. I almost feel like reading it again for that because I was a teacher who absolutely loved her job – it was a gift, a privilege a vocation and an avocation.

    I also read Butcher’s Crossing and yes, it’s well worth reading – I haven’t read his others. Some of my favorite books are those which didn’t quite catch on but show up later in the New York Review of Books collections. Finding them is the hard part –

    1. There’s a growing body here that still have to read Watership Down, I can see, Becky. And, I only read Beloved because it turned up on one of my book group lists. Butcher’s Crossing is now top of my list, although I haven’t been able to source a library copy so I’m on the look out in the secondhand shops.

    1. Well, it would be a dull world if we all liked the same things, Rohan. It just rang so many bells for me and I really did think the writing was superb.

  5. Well, I do have a copy of this on my Kindle and TBR following an equally enthusiastic review by another reader whom I also trust. Thanks for the push needed to shove it up the priority list. 🙂

  6. Isn’t this a wonderful book? I read it earlier in the year and loved it. I’m not a teacher but I still thought it felt very true to life, so I’m glad you’ve confirmed that. I’m pleased you changed your mind and gave Watership Down a chance, by the way – it’s one of my favourites!

    1. And one of mine now as well, Helen. But did you ever manage to get on with any of Adams’ other books? I’m afraid I saw him as a bit of a one book wonder.

  7. I’m another one that resists hyped books as much as I can. I kept hearing how wonderful Stoner is but the little demon in my head kept saying “Emperor’s new clothes” so I steadfastly ignored it on every visit to the bookshop. Seems i have genuinely missed a treat.
    As for the importance of teachers, can someone please explain why they don’t get paid anywhere near the same level as politicians and yet have far more influence on the future? Time to get off my soap box now

    1. Well, I wouldn’t have read it if it hadn’t cropped up on a reading group list, Karen, which is, of course, the beauty of such things – you get to read the books you would have otherwise ignored. And as for teachers’ pay – someone should remind politicians that they are only where they are because of teachers, – but then I would be joining you on that soap box, wouldn’t I?

  8. Ha! I resisted Watership Down for ages because I didn’t feel I needed a book about psychic bunny rabbits in my life. Just goes to show how wrong one can be! And it’s good that you give the books a chance eventually. 🙂

  9. I didn’t realize this book was getting lots of hype. I read it because one of the students who works for me recommended it (and reviewed it on Oct. 15, 2012). I didn’t say this in the review, partly because I knew the student would read it, but it gave me a wistful feeling, since I wasn’t teaching anymore. Recently, though, I’ve been escaping from my own David Lodge-ization of the song “Nice Work if you can get it” and realizing in a way I couldn’t when I was younger that loving what you do makes whatever you do worth the time.

    1. Exactly, Jeanne. There are bad times about teaching, of course, but if you are, like Stoner, a real teacher then it is still the best job in the world. While I was out this afternoon someone came up to me, addressed me by name and told me that I had taught her thirty-four years ago. That is the sort of thing that makes it all worth while.

  10. I have this to read and have been looking forward to it – am more so now! I did read Watership Down aged about 8 and cried my eyes out, which annoyed my mother. She said ‘Why can’t you read NICE books?’ Which is probably why I went on to teach 20th French lit, where ‘nice’ is conspicuously absent!

  11. Everyone loves Stoner. Why I haven’t read it I can’t say. I noticed last year that Stoner had become “the” book to read in the UK, and for some reason that made me dig in. It’s like your experience with Watership Down. But your review is so interestesing and I’m goiing to have to rethink my resistance to Stoner.

    1. Do, Kat, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. It has been one of the greatest plus points of belonging to a reading group, that I have been asked to read books that I wold never normally have picked up and far more often than not have been really grateful.

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