I write this in the "business center" just off the lobby of the motel where I am staying in White Plains, N.Y. When I travel, I sleep poorly and inevitably develop a stomach ache. I stay up late and read, making use of the relative quiet, away from children. I am reading Stoner, a 1965 novel by John Williams. I read it throughout my Texas-to-New York flights yesterday, and it inspired the self-forgetfulness I associate with good fiction. New York Review Books recently reprinted the book in paperback but I am reading a first edition from the library at the University of Houstion. Judging from the stamped dates on the sign-out card at the back of the book, no one has read this copy since at least 1982, which is a shame because it's a fine, plain-spoken, slightly old-fashioned book about the life of a man born in 1891 on a hard-scrabble farm in Missouri. Williams has the authorly chutzpah to chronicle what I assume will be his character's entire life, literally from birth, all in fewer than 300 pages.
William Stoner is the first in his family to leave the farm and go to college -- in this case, the University of Missouri, in Columbia. At first, he studies agriculture, assuming he will eventually return to run the farm with his father. Instead, he is ambushed by literature. When an instructor asks him to interpret Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 ("That time of year thou mayst in me behold..."), Stoner is stunned into silence. Without telling his parents, he drops his Ag School course and switches to liberal arts. Stoner is intelligent but not emotionally articulate. Here he is in the college library, soon after shifting his focus to literature:
"In the University library he wandered though the stacks, among the thousands of books, inhaling the musty odor of leather, cloth, and drying page as if it were and exotic incense. Sometimes he would pause, remove a volume from the shelves, and hold it for a moment in his large hands, which tingled at the still unfamiliar feel of spine and board and unresisting page. Then he would leaf through the book, reading a paragraph here and there, his stiff fingers careful as they turned the pages, as if in their clumsiness they might tear and destroy what they took such pains to uncover."
That's beautifully modulated prose, richly suggestive but never giving too much away. It captures perfectly the sense of wonder, respect and apprehension I remember feeling on first visiting a university library.
Later, after Stoner himself is teaching English at the University of Missouri and his parents have died, he undergoes a similar epiphany, resolving to be a good teacher:
"The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print -- the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly."
The very form of that sentence -- its protracted, carefully deferred resolution -- echoes Stoner's own slowly articulated realization of what he hopes his life will become. Williams nicely renders the consciousness of an intelligent, thoughtful, conscientious man who is perfectly at home with silence and strong, unexpressed emotion. Published in the decade of V. and Portnoy's Complaint, Stoner must have seemed at the time like a musty anachronism to many readers. In fact, 41 years later, it has aged beautifully.