Stoner, by John Williams, is not only the best novel I read this year, but it’s among the best I’ve ever read. It is also, I think, the sort of book that people aren’t writing right now. It’s a life, from the moment when its protagonist Bill Stoner really comes alive in a sophomore English class at the University of Missouri through his career as a professor of English there. About halfway through the novel is one of the best scenes I’ve ever encountered in a book. I don’t want to describe it too much here, as discovering it is one of the pleasures of the book, but I think they should teach it in writing classes everywhere, as it really is a perfect scene. In fact, Stoner is a perfect novel.
My requirements for non-fiction are pretty high: I want the book to challenge my worldview, or my view of something, at least. Few books have done that as thoroughly and marvelously as Here Comes Everybody, by Clay Shirky. A book about “organizing without organizations,” HCE (literary types will catch the reference to Finnegan’s Wake) chronicles the changes taking place across media, politics and social interactions as a result of the internet. From protest movements to software engineering to newspaper reporting, Shirky shows how much things have changed in the last ten years, and more importantly, why. The book is so smart and so successful because, at its heart, it’s a work of sociology rather than a book about technology. As Shirky states, “Technology doesn’t get sociologically interesting until it becomes technologically boring.” Here is a book that made me rethink many aspects of how I do my job and also about how the some of the things I value in this world — good books, for instance — might be produced in the future.
(As an addendum, 2009 marks the first year that I read an ebook. I read Here Comes Everybody entirely on my iPhone. My suspicion is that I’m not alone in venturing into the ereading frontier for the first time.)