Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.Despite it's shortcomings, John Williams' 1965 novel Stoner has at its core a great strength: the love of literature, of poetry, of language, the love of engaging in depth with literature and its language, and even a love of the way that the central meaning to humanity of the arts is something that cannot, in the end, be fully expressed. I take it that the disappointments our protagonist William Stoner meets in life are a metaphor for the disappointment one experiences when one discovers that the greatest works of language leave us all essentially incoherent if we attempt to fully interpret and evaluate. We pursue that which we love, we pursue the idea of that which we love, and we never are able to possess or understand it. Or something like that.
I think this is all stated for the reader in a scene early on in the book, where Stoner, who has enrolled in an agronomic science program at the University of Missouri, finds himself entrapped within a survey of English literature, a course required of all students, a course that "troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done." Stoner has never been challenged before to find actual meaning in poetry: "the words he read were words on pages, and he could not see the use." The man teaching the course, Archer Sloane, reads out Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, which likens a man growing old to an ancient tree in the winter. It is not one of Shakespeare's more difficult sonnets, no, but it's new to Stoner as is, I think, the very idea of metaphor. Sloane calls on several students to say what the sonnet means, getting no response. Sloane calls on Stoner, who says nothing. Sloane recites the sonnet again, from memory, and asks Stoner to tell him what it means. Stoner thinks hard and sees, for the first time, that the sonnet is more than mere words on a page, that there is something beyond the surface of the language. Stoner vaguely connects the ideas of winter weather outside the classroom with the aging man who is a leafless old tree in the sonnet, but he does not know how to describe this connection; he is only aware that he has seen something new, and he can only say of Shakespeare's 73rd sonnet that "It means...it means." Stoner "could not finish what he had to say." The bell rings, Stoner follows his classmates outside, where he again sees the winter weather, sees humanity milling about, and he knows that somehow the world has changed, his perception of life is now different, though he can never express precisely in what way. The next year he declares as an English Literature major.
I have had this moment, this knowing that I'm experiencing something new and powerful and beautiful though I cannot begin to comprehend it, this moment followed by a desire to pursue the experience into real knowledge. I've had this moment with music, with art, with literature. This moment, I believe John Williams would have us believe, is a moment of falling in love.