the contextual life

thoughts without borders

Short Takes: Stoner by John Williams

with 5 comments

Stoner, a novel by John Williams, is set in a small Missouri town and spans the time period of the early to mid 1900s. The story follows the life of William Stoner as he moves from life on the family farm with his quiet, yet loving, and forward-thinking parents, to a university career. His father sends him off to a nearby college to study a new form of agriculture in the hopes that he’ll return and revive the family business. Instead, encouraged by his freshman composition instructor, William finds a love for literature and sets out to become an English professor.

His life falls into place with all the early 20th century conventions: a wife, a tenured position at the university, a child, and finally a house to call his own. As idyllic as that sounds, what makes Stoner an engrossing work of literature is just how tragic William’s life really is. He’s in a loveless marriage to a woman of questionable emotional soundness–she turns both their daughter and his study into pawns in a one-sided battle–and, shortly after accepting a teaching position, his career is stifled by departmental politics.

It’s hard to convince someone to pick up a book when the best way to describe it is “devastating”. But Williams doesn’t try to trick you. Just as with books that throw the “f-word” into the first page–just so you know what you’re in for–Stoner’s tone is set within the opening lines:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 195. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. …

An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

Heartbreaking, devastating, tragic, and yes, at times even depressing, Stoner is all of those things but it is also the first book I held in my hands in as long as I can remember that I didn’t want to end. Put aside any reservations you might have and make this the next book on your list.

Buy Stoner at IndieBound or at your local bookstore
The New York Times Book Review essay on Stoner
WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show discusses Stoner


Written by Gabrielle

July 2, 2012 at 6:58 am

5 Responses

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  1. […] Gabrielle Gantz talks Stoner by John Williams. […]

  2. I love reading your book reviews. 🙂 That’s why I nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award.


    July 4, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    • thanks for that. really nice to hear and, i appreciate the vote.


      July 4, 2012 at 6:09 pm

  3. Yea – think your reviews are great. I tried to write on myself recently and realized how hard it is (

    Keep it up


    July 16, 2012 at 5:42 am

  4. Absolutely loved this book! Thanks for your review.

    Skye Wentworth

    October 4, 2012 at 2:35 pm

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