Well that was a stormy night. Spent the last three hours of it sleeplessly in the library recliner, alongside our thunderstruck old Angel dog. She somehow made her way past several closed doors to fetch me at 3 am. Younger Daughter, I discovered, had at some earlier point in the night improvised a blanket tent above the dog bed in an attempt to pacify the terrified pooch. Cute. Nice try.
So, what to do in the recliner at 3 am when sleep eludes? I went to Hoopla and found an audio recording of a book I can’t believe I’d never heard of, Stoner by John Edward Williams. It’s set in a slightly fictionalized early-20th century version of my old college town Columbia MO, about a farm kid who goes off to the university to study agriculture and ends up getting a lit degree and becoming a prof. It didn’t put me to sleep, but I didn’t mind.
“But don’t you know, Mr Stoner?’ Sloane asked. ‘Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”
“He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which is simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man.”
“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.”
Only sometimes? But it’s not usually a shattering awareness of futility, for me, more just a sense of humility. And, of solidarity with all the other academic under-laborers who’ll never know it all, read it all, or teach it with the requisite “dignity” and depth. Stoner’s people on the farm scratched at the earth, his people in the academy scratch at culture and learning. It all comes from an itch for living that good parents and teachers pay forward.
6 am/5:33, 70/95, 8:06
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