The Extraordinary in the Ordinary Life

A friend recommended Stoner by John Williams in her 2014 book roundup. I was sufficiently intrigued by her description to order a copy for myself. I, of course, did not read the review in the New Yorker (since I prefer to enter new books with as little prior information as possible). The book itself did not disappoint.

This is in many ways a very small story, covering the adult life of a man who never travels more than a days journey from his home in Columbia, Missouri. Williams begins by making the narrow contours of this life – the life of William Stoner – very clear by sketching the whole of his life in the first paragraph. What follows, then, is a powerful argument for the extraordinary that lies within the ordinary life. Without spoiling too much of that extraordinary-ness – which comes across in both the story and in Williams’ beautiful prose – let me briefly touch on two themes that caught my personal attention.

The Challenge of Intimacy – Stoner comes of age at a moment when the formality (and separation) of the Victorian Age is giving way to a new 20th century idea of relationships as being both more publicly revealed and more intimate. It’s a rough patch that reminds us how fragile a thing real intimacy – emotional as well as sexual – can be and how un-automatic it is even in relationships that seem to begin with great passion. It reminded me in this regard of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, a short but powerful novel focused more on the sexual side of intimacy on the cusp of the 1960s revolution.

The Halcyon Days of Academic Yore – Stoner’s career gives the lie to the inclination in modern academia to assume that what we are now seeing is the crumbling of the centuries-long strength of the university system. Published in 1965 by a member of the academy, Stoner reflects the long history of contingency, the ongoing challenge of collegiality, and the way in which professional ego can so easily trump educational standards. (Though we’re certainly in crisis now, there never was a long-standing, broad-reaching condition of strength to which we can magically return.) With all of this, though, I still looked up to Stoner, especially for his focus on teaching. He reminded me of mentor of mine, who could never quite get his next book finished (and thus never reached full professor status) because he was busy teaching. Such professors are not failures of academia but in fact the backbone of our universities. I wish more of those in power could see that.

Even if you don’t care much about these particular themes, if you’d enjoy some intimate storytelling and prose that can make the seemingly ordinary wonderfully compelling, pick up this book. You’ll be glad to have treated yourself to “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of.”*


* That’s the title of the New Yorker review, in case you needed any more prodding.

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