Book Diary: Stoner (John Williams)

This quietly brilliant novel got me thinking about books that are about books.  More specifically, books that are about a love of books.  It made me wonder whether an author – before they become an author – must first be a ‘reader’; a book lover: if you can have one without the other, in a kind of literary ‘chicken and egg’ question.  I don’t know the answer, but I like thinking about the possibilities.

William Stoner, the novel’s protagonist, loves books and they remain the only constant in his eventfully-uneventful existence (the novel is concerned with what significance an individual life has for those of us who live ‘small lives’ – in this instance against the backdrop of two shattering World Wars  – whilst at the same time illustrating how what can be devastating for one person can represent triumph (as with one’s enemies), or just utter insignificance for another).  Near the end of his life, he reviews the three loves he has known and only two of them are human, the third – and also the first – is literature.  These are the terms he uses to express it: ‘love’, ‘being in love’ and: “It’s love, Mr Stoner.  You are in love. It’s as simple as that.”  As his mentor and English professor tells him early on in the novel.  When he dies, it is in the warm embrace, not of wife or lover, but of his own book which was published many years before.

There is a kind of double thrill to be found in reading a great writer, writing about books: gracefully, eloquently, succinctly, reflecting and explaining for the reader that which we only dimly recognised by ourselves.  In the case of this novel, Williams beautifully elucidates for the reader, the reason why those of us that love books read, as this quote about the process of learning and engaging with literature demonstrates:

As his mind engaged itself with its subject, as it grappled with the power of the literature he studied and tried to understand its nature, he was aware of a constant change within himself; and as he was aware of that, he moved outward from himself into the word which contained him, so that he knew that the poem of Milton’s that he read or the essay of Bacon’s or the dram of Ben Johnson’s changed the world which was its subject, and changed it because of its dependence upon it.

With the theme of reading, there naturally follows the theme of knowledge (taking in understanding of oneself) and its slippery nature is also captured within the pages of the novel:

He had come to that moment in his age when there occurred to him, with increasing intensity, a question of such overwhelming simplicity that he had no means to face it.  He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living … He took a grim and ironic pleasure from the possibility that what little learning he had managed to acquire had led him to this knowledge: that in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter.

For me, a subtle, beautiful, and very moving novel.

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