On my bus journey yesterday evening I finished ‘Stoner’ by John Williams – ‘the greatest book you’ve never read’ according to the Sunday Times quote on the cover. Now The Sunday Times is hardly a newspaper of repute, I know, but this seems like an apt way to describe this book.
It’s the story of the unremarkable life of a university professor, born in Missouri at the end of the 19th century, who attends agricultural college, to enable to him to assist his farmer parents upon graduation. While attending he decides that he wants to be an English teacher and switches studies.
And from there it gives an account of his life – how he spent his Great War years, his unhappy marriage to the wrong woman, his mediocre career at the University of Missouri, and his death (no spoilers included here – this timeline of events is laid out in the first few pages.)
It sounds like a very mundane read, but it is anything but.
It is an incredibly sparse and moving book. I guess the idea of an ordinary, unremarkable life, filled with ordinary, unremarkable events wouldn’t appear to be especially engaging. Drama, tragedy, intrigue and redemption should appear to be more thrilling for a reader.
Not in this case. When you think about it, the vast majority of people live routine lives, and few will be remembered after they die for more than a generation or so, and only by immediate friends and family. Not everyone can be a Nelson Mandela or a Margaret Thatcher or an Albert Einstein. Yet it’s only a handful of books that recount the dreary grind of an unfulfilling life.
The book is written in a very clear, precise, unemotional style and is all the better for it.
It’s a quiet book, about an ordinary, forgotten person.
It was written in the 1960s and like the main character was forgotten until a few years ago when it was republished as a forgotten classic.
It’s a remarkable book.
It’s hardly the Booker Prize I’m awarding here, but to date it gets my vote as My Book of The Year 2016.