The other weekend, I was eating cottage cheese wrapped in toasted tortillas (my go-to snack), and casually flipping through the New York Times magazine. I came upon an article that took me in by surprise. Afterwards I contemplatively stared into space and had one of those “What does it all mean?” moments. Maybe I was in a dark mood when I read it.
In any event, it’s a short and simple piece. The writer, Steve Almond, extolls his favorite book ever: Stoner by John Williams.
I bought the book, of course, but in the meantime, Almond’s summary is as follows.
First, take your inner life seriously: “Stoner argues that we are measured ultimately by our capacity to face the truth of who we are in private moments, not by the burnishing of our public selves.”
Second, you’re probably a rather ordinary and flawed human being — just like the protagonist William Stoner:
William Stoner is, in many ways, a dubious leading man, introverted and passive. He fails even to protect his daughter from the deranged whims of his troubled wife. The story of his life is not a neat crescendo of industry and triumph, but something more akin to our own lives: a muddle of desires and inhibitions and compromises.
And if you think you’re really special, get real:
Put your wit — or your craft projects or your rants or your pranks — on public display.
Otherwise, you wind up like poor Stoner: a footnote in the great human story.
But aren’t nearly all of us footnotes in the end? Don’t the dreams we harbor eventually give way to the actuality of our lives?
Stoner’s creator seems to argue that self-knowledge is the highest form of knowledge, especially when the actuality of our lives isn’t anything special (as is the case for 99.9% of us):
Soon enough, fate confounds him. His marriage devolves into a domestic horror. His daughter falls into despair. A senseless feud undermines his career. He suffers no delusions about his place in the world. He recognizes that others find him absurd and that his intellectual contributions to his arcane field are at best minor. Over and over again, Stoner is forced to confront his own weakness, his limitations as a son and father and husband and scholar. And yet he refuses to turn away.
As Stoner lies dying, his creator observes: “There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.”
How many of us can say the same of ourselves?
He was himself. And he knew what he had been.