#9 “Stoner” by John Williams


  1. City of Heavenly Fire – Cassandra Clare
  2. Every Word – Ellie Marney
  3. Skinjob – Bruce McCabe
    i.     Bloodlines – Richelle Mead
    ii.   The Golden Lily – Richelle Mead
    iii. The Indigo Spell – Richelle Mead
    iv. The Fiery Heart – Richelle Mead
  4. Silver Shadows – Richelle Mead
  5. Looking For Alibrandi – Melina Marchetta
  6. Goose – Dawn O’Porter
  7. Run – Gregg Olsen
  8. Love Letters to the Dead – Ava Dellaira
  9. Stoner – John Williams
  10. The Wrong Girl – Zoë Foster
  11. A Fatal Tide – Steve Sailah
  12. Murder in Mississippi – John Safran
  13. Elianne – Judy Nunn
  14. Being Jade – Kate Belle
  15. Martha in the Mirror – Justin Richards
  16. Shining Darkness – Mark Michalowski
  17. The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  18. Divergent – Veronica Roth
  19. Insurgent – Veronica Roth
  20. Allegiant – Veronica Roth
  21. The Messenger – Markus Zusak
  22. Fragile Things – Neil Gaiman
  23. The Mammoth Book of Angels and Demons
  24. Eleanor & Park – Rainbow Rowell
  25. NOS4R2 – Joe Hill
  26. The Gospel of Loki – Joanne M. Harris
  27. Hades – Candice Fox
  28. Last Night at Chateau Marmont – Lauren Weisberger
  29. Thirteen Reasons Why – Jay Asher
  30. Are You Seeing Me? – Darren Groth

I don’t know if you can read the words in that little red circle, but this is what they say:

‘The greatest novel you’ve never read’
Sunday Times

All books have those rubbish little reviews on the front. And the back. And hidden in the first few pages. I always ignore them because the reviews that make it onto the published product? Of course they’re rave reviews. It’s not like there’s going to be a negative review on the cover of a book for consumers to read. So all it is is name dropping, really. A list of “oh my God, look who’s read my book!” to make you feel like you need to read it too.

In the case of Stoner, that Sunday Times review is bang on. I actually had never heard of this novel until it ended up in my goodie bag from the Book Blogging Forum a few months ago. I almost waited until the end of semester to read it. Thank God I didn’t. This book is actually one of the very few that I believe can be described as life-changing.

Yeah, there you go, I said it.

This was a surprising discovery, given that the name of the book brings to mind Nimbin and Mardi Grass and bongs and earthy brownies. Those looking for a book all about the wonders of weed will be disappointed. At least, until the story grabs hold of them.

Most of the books I read are about extraordinary individuals in extraordinary circumstances. Or about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Or something extraordinary happens and the story follows the “aftermath”. This is not necessarily a bad thing. No, scratch that, it’s not a bad thing. Because, and I don’t know about you, but I read as an escape from reality: beautiful words expressing things that couldn’t possibly happen, or may happen in a parallel world. I do love my alternate realities. But here’s the thing: of all the stories that I have ever read, not one comes close to celebrating everyday life like Stoner does. And this is why I found this novel to be life-changing.

Stoner follows the life of one William Stoner, from the days before he starts college to the day he dies. This is the plot. There are no fancy twists, startling discoveries, or horrific occurrences. This book is about a man simply living his life.

If this story had been told in any other way, say a movie or a TV show, it would have been boring. Those media can’t really capture the magic that is Stoner. There aren’t many books that really take advantage of the written form. I’ve seen genius writers, but a lot of their work could easily be transferred to the big screen. Or the small one. William’s story can’t be translated. It has to stay a book or everything is lost. And I can’t even explain to you why.

Stoner doesn’t have a climax. There’s no huge point of tension that gets neatly wrapped up in the final chapter. The story flows in the same manner as life does; there are lovely moments, heart-wrenching moments, disappointments, and those patches of happiness that makes the banality of existence all worth it. And when it ends, there are things left unsaid and undone. And Williams never sensationalises the events in Stoner’s life. The trials and tribulations are never represented as being more important than they would be in anyone else’s life. He stresses Stoner’s averageness. Stoner’s not particularly bright or handsome or skilled at anything. He expects to go through life as a farmer, and in fact goes to college to study in the School of Agriculture. But then he falls in love with literature and spends his life surrounded by books. Writing them, reading them, shaping them. And Stoner lets this love of literature shape his life.

This book touched me. Books have made me laugh and cry and feel things plenty of times before, but I have never had a book speak to me like Stoner did. It was like Williams was speaking to me from fifty years ago and all he had to say was this:

  • Life is always a little unsatisfying
  • There is no point in regret

We all hope for that perfect life, don’t we? We all think that life will be greener elsewhere, or that life would be better if we had more money, a partner, fame, notoriety. But that’s simply not the case. Everyone wishes for something more. It’s part of human nature. What we fail at, as a species, is being happy with what we have. No one is happy all the time. We suffer disappointments and make mistakes. But we all get periods of happiness. If life were always happy, we wouldn’t know to treasure those moments of pure joy when they come to us.
Stoner has a humble life. He finds happiness in his young daughter and in a mistress. But when his daughter is turned against him and his lover is forced to leave him, Stoner still finds happiness in his work. He loves everything about books and so, when pieces of his life disintegrate, he finds joy in the written word. Stoner doesn’t complain, doesn’t wish for things to be different, but does the best he can with the hand he was dealt. And there’s something in that for everyone, I think. When life gets you down, find that one thing that makes you happy and use it to see you through.

That second point, that there is no point in regret, was a big one. See, I am in the middle of regretting a decision I made late last year. But what’s done is done. I can’t go back and fix it. I can’t undo what I’ve done. All I can do is hope that my actions now and in the future will get me back to a place similar to where I was before.

Everyone makes mistakes. This is what we get told time and time again. But does it ever really sink in? No, I don’t think so. Stoner made me see the truth behind that hackneyed advice. And Stoner certainly made mistakes throughout his life. But as he lay dying, his thoughts were not fixated on those mistakes. Instead, he saw his life a different way:

But he was not beyond [passion], he knew, and would never be. Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there.

He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life, and had perhaps given it most fully when he was not aware of his giving. It was a passion neither of  the mind nor the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.

We live our lives the best way that we know how. Sometimes we stumble. Sometimes we succeed. But in everything we do, we give our all. Even if we don’t quite realise it.

I can’t review this book, not really. Not when I can’t remove myself from the text. But I found someone who may have done a pretty decent job over at the New Yorker. If you want something more than my intangible musings, give that link a go. But most importantly, give Stoner a chance.


About Bec Graham

Bec Graham, 24, was born on the wrong continent. Everything from her burns-like-paper skin tone to her inability to cope with the slightest hint of a hot day suggests she should have been born under the gloomy skies and mild sun of the UK. She hopes writing will get her to her rightful home one day. Failing that, she scans the skies for a spinning blue police box, hoping to catch a lift back to the motherland.
This entry was posted in Extorting Bibliophilia, Musings and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to #9 “Stoner” by John Williams

  1. Debbish says:

    Okay, now I’m tempted to read this. Thanks, as I really had no idea what to expect!

  2. Wow, this is a wonderful review for a great classic book! I was intrigued when I saw it on the shelves, but had never heard anything about it. I love how you said it was like a celebration of everyday life, which is what we need reminding of sometimes. Lovely review!

    • Bec Graham says:

      Thanks so much! I got a bit carried away with the effects of the book as opposed to the story itself, but that New Yorker piece I linked to is brilliant. If you get a chance to read it, you definitely should. And definitely give this book a go! It gets a bit depressing, but only because it’s so, well, real!

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