Stoner – John Williams, An Exquisite Novel

I first read John Williams’ book, Stoner, in 2012 and was stunned. For the first time in my life, I understood what I expected from the literature, how a book could affect me. And I looked for the effect Stoner left on me in every book I read after Stoner, but I couldn’t find it. After nine years, when I finally reread it, I saw that the book got bigger, better, and more profound.


John Williams is a tremendous author. The character he created with William Stoner is so deep, so real that I wanted to take him out of the book, love him and make him happy until he died. On the one hand, he is so beautiful that I realized that I would not dare change anything. After all, nothing can replace his passion for his profession, his love of learning, and that beautiful love he enjoyed, albeit briefly.

Stoner - John Williams

Stoner is a compelling novel that envelops you like a heatwave with all its simplicity and unpretentiousness. William Stoner is a quiet, decent character. He makes big mistakes throughout his life and continues to live by accepting them. However, on the one hand, his passion for living, loving and learning become a fire that burns deep inside him. Stoner is both a very simple and a very complex character. I guess that’s why so many readers read this beautiful book with excitement. John Williams’ exquisite, distinctive, clean narration pairs beautifully with the character of Stoner. And as you can imagine, there is not a single unnecessary sentence in the book. It’s truly perfect.

Before I started reading Stoner for the second time, I felt excited and vulnerable as if I had reunited with my true love years later. As soon as I read the first sentence, I remembered all the emotions I felt when I first read it. I didn’t want it to end. My heart was already broken, knowing that it would end eventually. I wanted to devour it, word by word. And I wanted it to devour me with every feeling it would resurface. I wanted to destroy and resurrect myself again and again again. And, oh God, I did!

I think Stoner will be the only book I can’t wait to read again and again. I hope you read it at the right time and love it. Enjoy!

“Lust and learning,” Katherine once said. “That’s really all there is, isn’t it?”

― John Williams, Stoner
Stoner - John Williams


William Stoner is born at the end of the nineteenth century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, so different from the hardscrabble existence he has known. And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a “proper” family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude.

John Williams’s luminous and deeply moving novel is a work of quiet perfection. William Stoner emerges from it not only as an archetypal American, but as an unlikely existential hero, standing, like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper, in stark relief against an unforgiving world.

JohnEdward Williams

John Edward Williams (August 29, 1922 – March 3, 1994) was an American author, editor and professor. He was best known for his novels Butcher’s Crossing (1960), Stoner (1965), and Augustus (1972), which won a U.S. National Book Award.

Williams was raised in Clarksville, Texas. His grandparents were farmers; his stepfather was a janitor in a post office. Williams attended a local junior college for a year, and then worked in media before joining the war effort in early 1942 by enlisting in the United States Army Air Force. He spent two and a half years as a sergeant in India and Burma. During his enlistment in Calcutta, he wrote pages of a novel, which later became Nothing But the Night, published in 1948 by Swallow Press and later reissued by New York Review Books Classics.

At the end of the war, Williams moved to Denver, Colorado, and enrolled in the University of Denver, receiving Bachelor of Arts (1949) and Master of Arts (1950) degrees. During his time at the University of Denver, his first two books were published, Nothing But the Night (1948), a novel depicting the terror and waywardness resulting from an early traumatic experience, and The Broken Landscape (1949), a collection of poetry.

Upon completing his MA, Williams enrolled at the University of Missouri, where he taught and worked on his Ph.D. in English literature, which he obtained in 1954. In the fall of 1955, Williams returned to the University of Denver as an assistant professor, becoming director of the creative-writing program. His second novel, Butcher’s Crossing (Macmillan, 1960) depicts frontier life in 1870s Kansas.

John Edward Williams

In 1963, Williams edited and wrote the introduction for the anthology English Renaissance Poetry: A Collection of Shorter Poems from Skelton to Jonson (Doubleday). The publication elicited a backlash from poet and literary critic Yvor Winters who claimed that Williams’s anthology overlapped with his canon and the introduction imitated his arguments. The publishers agreed to include an acknowledgement to Winters in the publication.

Williams’s second collection of poems, The Necessary Lie (1965), was issued by Verb Publications. He was the founding editor of the University of Denver Quarterly[1] (later Denver Quarterly), which was first issued in 1965. He remained as editor until 1970.

His third novel, Stoner, detailing the tragic life of a University of Missouri English assistant professor, was published by Viking Press in 1965. It was reissued in 2005 by NYRB Classics to widespread critical acclaim. It was subsequently translated and published throughout Europe and beginning in 2011, became a best seller in France, the Netherlands, Italy, Israel, and the UK.

His fourth novel, Augustus (Viking, 1972), a rendering of the violent times of Augustus Caesar in Rome, also remains in print. On the year of its release, it shared the National Book Award for Fiction with Chimera by John Barth, the first time that the award was split.

Williams retired from the University of Denver in 1985 and died of respiratory failure in 1994 at home in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He was survived by his wife and descendants. A fifth novel, The Sleep of Reason, was unfinished at the time of his death, but two lengthy excerpts were published in Ploughshares and the Denver Quarterly in 1981 and 1986, respectively.

Williams loved the study of literature. In a 1986 interview, he was asked, “And literature is written to be entertaining?” to which he replied emphatically, “Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid.”

Reading this book contributed to these challenges: 

Read Around the World, A Great Journey

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