Brutal Simplicity – Why everyone should read John Williams’ ‘Stoner’.

My mother’s keen eye for a Christmas present that would be wholly appreciated and wholly unexpected is the reason I came into possession of Stoner.

But the reason it came into the back-rooms of the bookshop she brought it from, is a tale far more mysterious. A book that fell through the cracks of western readership in the 1960’s burst to life in 2013; a literary phoenix second only to Dumbledore’s Fawkes.

Why? You could blame the Beatles. You could blame the Cold War. However, the book has only itself to blame: It is too subtle. Williams’s Words fly under the radar, below sea level. The novel is more subterranean than subtle.

The opening tells you the dramatic and eventful oscillations of the novel will flatline and then plateau from thereon in: ”William Stoner entered the University of Missouri in 1910…[he] accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956”.

In a nutshell, there you have it. In fact, if you have a moment, a nutshell with enough room for a conservatory extension and central heating to be installed, if the plot is anything to go by. A boy is born on farm. He becomes a professor of English. He marries unhappily. He has an affair. He writes an average book. He dies. Insert French windows here.

But what grows from this empty nutshell of plot events, like the farm that Stoner tills, is a tree from which we feel alive. Not from an explosive action packed plot line, but seeded through simple, organic language by which Williams mercilessly brings us towards a sense of our own earthy mortality, via our closeness with Stoner’s own.

Stoner’s internal story, the feelings Williams communicates for him are relateable to anyone. We find ourselves within his basest emotions (they are rarely complex), which become an incredibly sad and human element in the most beige and grey of settings.

It is often said that books vector communication across generations. From them we can learn about the past and draw parallels with the present. This is where the simplistic setting an uneventful plot does not encumber the novels ability to transcend time and place almost completely.

This is why the blog has no spoiler alerts. What you find within the book is wholly your own – Williams the author and William the University professor teach us not about the bards and book writers of old, but ourselves. He masters realism, and this is where the novel’s brutal simplicity and relatability lies.


And this is why everyone should read this book. It doesn’t matter that you can’t relate to being a professor at the university of Missouri, or that you have never tilled the earth. The setting is irrelevant – the environment near-obsolete. It is easy to read, the language uncomplicated. This is essentially a ‘modern classic’ that should be read by all.

This is not intended to be a review, more of an advocacy reading and the unexpected effects of language in general.


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