Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

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Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

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I read some books many years after I bought them and wish I had read them sooner. One of them is John Williams’s novel Stoner.

Although he wrote it in 1965 and received critical acclaim, it sold only a few thousand copies before seemingly heading for obscurity. It was rediscovered in 2005 and became popular in France in 2011. After that, it grew so popular that it demanded a reprint and became a bestseller. John died in 1994, known more as an academic than an author.

I bought Stoner in 2013 when Vintage republished it at Borders Bookstores, which used to exist. The title alone sold it for me. I didn’t even bother reading the back blurb. It was one of those titles that grabbed me, and I knew intuitively that it would be good. The cover cemented my impression.

It had a young man in a black and white suit cradling three books in his right hand while his left hand flipped open the topmost book, which he appeared to be looking at. I interpreted the title and book cover to mean the story was about an intelligent guy who regularly got stoned, hence the name stoner, and what he got up to. I could roll with that.

Yet, it stood on my shelf in the corridor to my bedroom for eleven years, unwrapped in plastic wrapping, neglected daily. I was not unaware of the book’s bright red spine, with the author’s name at the top end in light blue, followed by the book’s title in white, glowering at me whenever I passed.

I picked it up earlier this year because I finally felt it was time. I tore off the brittle-from-age plastic wrapping, sat down, read it, and couldn’t stop. I was riveted right from the insightful introduction by John McGahern until the end.

I finished it quickly, carrying it wherever I went and reading it in any spare moment until I was done. It wasn’t a thriller or suspense. There was little in terms of action. But bloody hell, the writing was elegant, the narration captivating and his insight into the human condition and relationships profound.

It turned out Stoner wasn’t what I thought it was. It had nothing to do with getting stoned for recreation or punishment, nothing to do with marijuana or, well, stoners. It was a literary work about the life of William Stoner and the seemingly mundane, if not sad and tragic, life he appeared to have led.

Stoner was born to farmer parents but found his place in teaching English literature, eventually becoming an associate professor until his retirement. During his time, he published a book. He married into a cold and superficial marriage from which he had a daughter whom he loved but became estranged. He had a short-lived affair with a student.

His life seemed sad and tragic because he didn’t seem to have anything in the end. His marriage was a performance because he married the wrong woman, who ruined his relationship with his daughter. His affair ended too soon and clumsily because he wasn’t cunning and devious. The only friends he had were distant ones. His career stalled because of a rivalry with one of his peers who surpassed him.

After reading Stoner, I felt a heavy sadness and deep melancholy, but it was cathartic. I empathised with Stoner. I understood that sense of being held back by circumstance and estranged from achieving more. The read provoked contemplation and introspection and reminded me of what I had to possess to find contentment.

I wallowed in melancholia for a week, then got down to find out about the novel, the writer, its reviews and reactions as I do with books and writers I enjoy. It turns out many felt the same way I did about it. Some even cried after. I wanted to find out what the author thought about our reactions and was fortunate to find it in a Guardian article. This is what he said:

I think he’s a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing … The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner’s sense of a job … a job in the good and honourable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was.”

John Williams | Stoner, the must-read novel of 2013 | The Guardian

To say I was initially surprised would be an understatement.

However, upon reflection, John Williams’ perspective was profound as it was positive.

His perspective powerfully reminded me that it is a privilege just to have that opportunity of experience in the first place and that I never truly possess or keep anything. I can’t take any of these things to my grave. I can only take away my experience, my memories of it and the relationships I make. Therefore, I need to be grateful, relish and positively contribute to that opportunity, not get too hung up on holding on to it. Savour it as it is happening, and later drape it with the glow of recollection.

It is not about the physical things we possess or extrinsic accomplishments we achieve at the end of our lives but whether we lead a life worth living—one with purpose, meaning, and autonomy and have sufficient good memories to carry with us as long as possible.

Stoner had that, in some measure. He wanted to be a professor of literature, and he was. He published a book. He wanted to be loved, and he did with his affair. When he needed friendship, he had it in a way that suited his temperament. All said and done, it was a life he chose and lived, and he did so with purpose. It may not get much better than that.

There’s also another important thing I learned from reading Stoner: Don’t judge a book by its cover and title without first reading the blurb unless you enjoy the pleasure of being surprised.

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