When I was young I read thousands of books, and had shelves of books on all my walls. As I got older, the shelves got emptier, my attention span shorter. Now I only read books that really grab me, which aren't many. I'll browse through books at the library for an hour, check out five or six that seem interesting, and give up on all of them almost every time. I'm old, and too busy writing dull prose to bother reading it.

There are no bookshelves in my room these days; just the dozen books I own, all on one corner of one table, and always I'm re-reading them. Most books disappoint me, but my dozen never do.

It's been a couple of years since anything was added to that corner of that table, but here's Stoner, by John Williams (no, not the composer). It's marvelous, so I've returned it to the library and purchased a copy to keep, to re-read every few months for the rest of my life.

It's about an unexceptional man named William Stoner, raised on a farm, who goes to an agricultural college to learn to be a better farmer. Instead he finds himself intrigued by a literature class, and changes his major. After graduating, he teaches at the same university he'd attended. Roadblocked by office politics, he never becomes a full professor, but never looks for a better position, either.

He thinks he's fallen in love with a young woman named Edith, so he marries her, soon knows it was a mistake, but eventually they have a child. Later he falls in love with a different woman, a scandal that can't be allowed at the university. He remains in his loveless marriage, writes a book that's poorly received, loses a good friend to war, and loses many of his students in another war.

That's the life and times of Will Stoner, and I've left little out because the story barely matters. What matters are the tiny details of Stoner's life, details exquisitely realized, not in a showy or flowery way like 'fancy' literature, but honestly, the way smart people think about things.

It's a book where nothing much happens, but Williams makes it very worth reading. That what I try to do when I'm writing, and I've mastered "nothing much happens" but usually come up short on "worth reading." Williams pulls it off, on every damned page.

Excerpts? Yeah, I suppose you'll want something snipped, so here's a moment from the death of Stoner's favorite teacher and mentor, Arthur Sloan:

Stoner was one of the pallbearers at the funeral. At the services he could not keep his mind on the words the minister said, but he knew that they were empty. He remembered Sloane as he had first seen him in the classroom; he remembered their first talks together; and he thought of the slow decline of this man who had been his distant friend. Later, after the services were over, when he lifted the handle of the gray casket and helped to carry it out to the hearse, what he carried seemed so light that he could not believe there was anything inside the narrow box.

Here's another piece of Stoner, chosen by quickly flipping through it and blindly poking my finger at a page:

The party was like many another. Conversation began desultorily, gathered a swift but feeble energy, and trailed irrelevantly into other conversations; laughter was quick and nervous, and it burst like tiny explosives in a continuous but unrelated barrage all over the room; and the members of the party flowed casually from one place to another, as if quietly occupying shifting positions of strategy. A few of them, like spies, wandered through the house, led by either Edith or William, and commented on the superiority of such older houses as this over the new, flimsier structures going up here and there on the outskirts of town.

Of course, every paragraph depends on the paragraph before and leads into the paragraph after, so an excerpt is like showing you a quarter-inch of a beautiful sunrise. It's only a bit of random color, means nothing, and you'd have to take my word that it's from a sunrise, not a bottle of shampoo.

Stoner is a sunrise. It made me feel the way a guy who flunks out of physics might feel about this year's Nobel Prizewinner: It's amazing what he's done and how he's done it, and it's an achievement beyond my meager abilities. As a reader something like Stoner is exactly the book I want to read, over and over again. As a writer it's something I wish I could accomplish even once.


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  1. OK, here’s another comment I owe you. Although I didn’t see the magic in Stoner, I know it’s there for you. I’m in the midst of my decennial read of Dashiell Hammett, and only rarely do I succeed in getting somebody else on board the joyous Hammett Express into the heart of America’s finest writing.

    I owe you several longish comments when I am once again QWERTY-capable, including my long-lost tale of the Incredible Smoking Nurses of 1970.


    1. Huh. I was only 75% sure so I didn't say thanks, but I thought you were the friend who'd recommended Stoner. Guess not.

      Nurses who smoked on duty? Oh, my.


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