Monday, February 22, 2010


The other day, Powell's was kind enough to have a sale on NYRB classics. Steve had wildly praised John William's Stoner, so this seemed like a good time to pick it up. The book reminded me a bit of Any Human Heart, and I wonder if William Boyd thought of this book as he wrote his.

The book is the life story of William Stoner, a farm boy who goes to college to study agriculture but falls in love with teaching and with literature. At first his life would seem to seem to be a series of disappointments. He loses touch with his farmer parents, who seem closer to the hired hand than they do to William. He marries poorly and enjoys a loving relationship for a brief period. He fails to develop a full relationship with his only child. He publishes very little and it is only modestly received. His career is constantly hobbled by a vindictive superior.

With all that though, William's still argues this life as a good one. Stoner pursues his career well and remains a teacher dedicated to his work, despite his limited career progression. The book shows that doing a job well should be just as lauded as rising to the top. More broadly, He essentially argues that all lives have their disappointments, but we would be better to focus on what went well and what is worth celebrating than dwelling on what went wrong.

I think this book is particularly helpful to the sort of American who wants to attain perfection in all aspects of life. Seeking complete perfection in all aspects of their life, Americans tend to seek optimization, without finding contentment in what they have achieved.

The book comes from the blessed time when novels were relatively short and still packed with meaning. He also works just as well at detail level as he does at the high concept level. William's character portraits are wonderful and help create a vivid world in the small Missouri college in which the book is set.

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