When I was a kid I use to walk through graveyards. I’d search for the oldest headstones and longest lived lying beneath them. I remember running charcoal across crumbled paper in order to decipher those too weathered and beaten to be read by eye alone. I remember carrying them with me, or at least trying to. For a minute, for an hour, some maybe for a day, but I tried to keep them with me, whole lives relegated to names, births and deaths linked together by a simple dash.
And in that way Stoner begins, not with a dash per-se, but something only a step above:
‘William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956.He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.”’
And then proceeds to immediately rub salt in an already gaping existential wound :
‘An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.’
There it is. The tombstone. A life, sad and unassuming, condensed like a novel into a limerick.
But if the first page is a tombstone then the rest of the book is the body that lies beneath, spent and wasting potential captured in cloth and coarse-cut wood. And what a heartbreakingly perfect thing it is. A piece of history so small as to be almost entirely forgotten.
And what a sad irony this book seemed destined to follow the same path to obscurity.
No one told me John Williams existed. The fact that I had to stumble upon him entirely by accident as opposed to having it resting among Hemingway and Faulkner is one of the greatest travesties in literary history. But I found it. I found it and I’m not letting go.
This book is beautiful. Fleeting in its happiness and crushing in its heartbreak, it is human experience compressed into just under 300 pages. The only proper response to this book is to love it. To hate it is to deny your own humanity, to admit a misalignment of soul to the rest of the world.
“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.” ― John Williams, Stoner