Today is the official launch of the new Bookclub-in-a-Box guide to John Williams’ 1965 novel Stoner, which has seen a sudden resurgence in popularity in recent years. Buy the PDF discussion guide on our website for just $6.95 (CDN), and the digital file will be emailed to you immediately upon purchase.
The Bookclub-in-a-Box guide (50 pages) includes complete coverage of the characters, themes, symbols, writing style, quotes from the novel, and book club discussion questions. Click here to buy it now!
Read a review by Marilyn Herbert, founder of Bookclub-in-a-Box, about the novel Stoner:
The question of why a “perfect” novel (described as such by reviewers) sat under everyone’s radar for 50 years is a good one. Originally published in 1965, John Williams’ novel Stoner was overshadowed by the likes of Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, and Henry Miller. It was also pushed to the back of people’s minds by the political backdrop of the civil rights movement. Then in 2011, it was translated into French and soared to the top of the literary stage. The phenomenon of Stoner is not media promotion, but word of mouth.
The book opens with the information that William Stoner, a farm boy, had become a teacher, married, had a child, and then died. This is the story of the life of an ordinary man. But as we come to see it, his was not an ordinary life — it was an individual life full of success and failure in all aspects, much like our own lives are. The novel is a deeply introspective look at being human.
Two ideas dominate the novel: life and literature, with the emphasis on the love of both. The structure is unusual, in that it opens with an obituary tribute to an unremarkable and little-remembered William Stoner, and then continues to unfold Stoner’s persona and relationships. The language is quiet and yet very powerful. The descriptions of Stoner’s development as a teacher, husband, and father is filled with disappointments, which Stoner takes in stride. Then, in middle age, he falls in love. This love affair cannot be acted upon because of the times (the 1950s) and the fact that he was married, but he endures and years later comes to understand that he is still capable of love and passion:
He was not beyond it, and never would be. Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there … It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance … it said simply: Look! I am alive.
This slim novel has many layers, discussing literature and language, isolation and loneliness, expectations and disappointments, love, war, death, education, and above all, change. John Williams plays out these themes using sensual descriptions based on juxtaposition of colour, silence, light, and dark. The writing is deeply intrusive on the reader’s consciousness.
In the end we, like Stoner, are faced with the question of what our own life’s purpose is and has been. Is any life ordinary, or can we look beneath the surface to see the beating heart of living and loving? Can we put that knowledge and observation into words, when words may not be sufficiently strong?
Stoner is a small but powerful novel and the character of William Stoner will stay with you for a long time.