Published in 1965 John William’s *Stoner* reads like something written forty years earlier. I’m not sure how I’d never heard of the book before, though a quick search of the internet suggests no one else has either (thanks mum for point it out to me). It was reissued in 2006 by New York Review of Books with an accompanying set of quotes from famous people (Tom Hanks endorses it!) pointing out its relative obscurity. So! If you’re looking for that hipster book that will set you apart as a reader who knows what’s what… No really, this book well deserves much more attention (something beyond a Wikipedia *stub* for instance).
Except it’s sort of a thematically appropriate obsolescence and obscurity. The novel takes a realist and measured approach to the question of what makes our lives meaningful – recognition? reputation? family? career? – and ultimately concludes that most of us – including our titular character and protagonist – will die unremarkable and unremembered (just like the book!). Against the idea that this obscurity is to be bemoaned or fought, the novel suggest that by embracing the small, idiosyncratic “purposes” that enliven our individual lives we can find, if not notoriety, then contentment. This message is one well worth considering in an era of ubiquitous fame and instant-celebrity. Instead of imagining that life fulfilment will come from celebrity, or even posthumous remembrance, the novel suggests that it is the quotidian and the insignificant that afford life its purpose and satisfaction.
In a similar vein the novel poses that the disasters that befall us (our protagonist is an English professor at a small American college who cannot communicate his desires, married to an unhappy and angry woman, father to an unhappy and angry daughter) as smaller – even to ourselves – than we might imagine. Disasters of workplace tension are nothing compared to the personal horror of making the wrong choice in a partner or abandoning our parents’ dreams for us to pursue our own.
A humble book about a humble man that is, in this humility, simply extraordinary.