Profound lessons of an ordinary life
Steve Almond first encountered “Stoner,’’ a 1965 John Williams novel about an eponymous English professor, when he was in graduate school. He’s never stopped re-reading it. “A really good piece of literature kind of gets into your inner life, and it becomes a different book every time you read it because you’re a different person,” Almond said. “The moment I read it, it resonated with me incredibly deeply, and every time I’ve re-read it, which is dozens, it has become a different book. It’s been a craft teacher; it’s been a reality instructor.”
In “William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life,” Almond leads readers through his own relationship with the book — and, potentially, theirs. “There’s so much in it, so many layers,” he said. For a novel about a quiet, obscure academic and his troubled marriage, the book is remarkably intense, he added. “I wouldn’t recommend it to somebody who wasn’t ready to read a piece of writing that is very sad and very beautiful and also, I think, redemptive.”
Reading “Stoner,” Almond added, “taught me how to write, more than any workshop I’ve taken.” More than that, the novel meditates on class, war, work, parenting, and death. “ ‘Stoner’ was the book that made me realize that it is not the quality of a particular life that matters, it’s the quality of attention that’s paid to a life.”
For a midcentury novel that’s been in and out of fashion over the past 50 years, “Stoner’’ is unusually resonant right now, Almond says. “If we subtract our notions of what makes somebody worthy of attention, what’s left? Well what’s left is what all of us have: this complex, moving, tumultuous inner life,” he said. “When a culture becomes divorced from its inner life, it becomes subject to manipulation. We’re in a particular moment where I feel like in its own odd way, ‘Stoner’ is a cautionary tale.”
Almond will read at 7 p.m. Thursday at Porter Square Books.
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