American Culture

The wonderful second life of Stoner

Books have lives of their own. Many are like meteors, burning across the sky before they disappear forever, some quickly, but some not. Some last longer, capturing a popular mood for a bit, and perhaps even hanging around for a while. Some, a rare few, shine immediately, and stay bright for years. Then there are those that make a modest appearance, fade away but never quite get extinguished, are kept alive by a dedicated fanatical few, and then come back, books about which people may wonder, Why did no one ever tell me about this book?

A couple of years ago, some friends were visiting, and my friend Bob handed me a book and said, “Here. Read this now.” So the next day I did. And I thought, Why did no one ever tell me about this book?

The book was Stoner, by John Williams. I didn’t know Williams, even though he was a winner of the National Book Award for his novel Augustus in 1973 (shared with John Barth.) He taught at the University of Denver, well out of the mainstream. He taught there for thirty years, and died in 1994. Stoner was published in 1965, and then disappeared almost immediately following a print run of 2000 copies. It had its cheerleaders—“Why isn’t this book famous?” CP Snow wanted to know in 1973. Irving Howe and Dan Wakefield championed it over the years. Then in 2006 The New York Review of Books, which has a publishing house, brought it back into print. Nothing unusual here—NYRB keeps lots of books in print, all good ones, but some, of course, are more popular than others.

But something happened, as it sometimes, miraculously, does. Word of mouth started. Who knows how these things happen—it’s so idiosyncratic there’s never any way to predict this. But the word on Stoner picked up. And it was friends handing it to friends, the way my friend Bob passed it on to me. And I spent a couple of years passing it on to others. But probably equally important, The New York Times did a long and appreciative profile of the book and of Williams, who at that point was largely forgotten, by Morris Dickstein, in 2007. And more people kept reading it. It took on a life of its own.

And now, goodness, it’s something of a best seller. It’s been re-issued by Vintage as well. Daunt and Waterstone’s, and practically every other bookstore around here, have it displayed prominently in front windows. Nearly every paper has given it thrillingly positive reviews. The Dutch translation topped the best-seller list in the Netherlands for months. It’s been translated into French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Catalan and German. It’s been a best-seller in Israel. The Catalan version has nearly gone through its print run. It’s Amazon’s top seller in Fiction Classics, ahead of Tolkein. The number of reviews appearing on-line is astonishing—if you google Stoner John Williams you’ll see one blogger review after another, and not just in English either. For some history, see here, here, here, here and here. Here’s something on the Missouri background. And here’s the UK Esquire calling it the best read of 2013.

All this for a book that is a simple tale of a deeply sad man—or, rather, a man with an unhappy life, but whose integrity and loves (both of them) gives him a core that demands respect and admiration. Stoner is a middling academic, a teacher of literature at the University of Missouri in the first half of the 20th century. His marriage is deeply unhappy, and his colleagues are not exactly admirable men, and betray him repeatedly. His moments of happiness are few, and involve a lover and his only daughter. And yet he shines. Stoner is a testament to a life of learning, the love of literature it can engender, and where that love of literature can take you. Stoner’s love of literature becomes redemptive in a way we don’t expect. It’s not a book you would expect to care deeply about, or to even feel protective about—and yet many, many readers do.

In the end, it may be something as simple as the fact that readers love this book. I know I do, as I do few other books. It’s that kind of book. As Dickstein wrote, “John Williams’s “Stoner” is something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.” It does indeed.

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