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Selling barely 2,000 copies of its 1965 print run, Stoner has been taking North America by storm, and is a bestseller in countries across Europe.

There is something you should have done in 1965, but likely didn't. You had to have been old enough, of course; and of a certain sensibility, perhaps. And no, it didn't involve sex. Or protest marches. Or rock 'n' roll. It didn't have anything to do with drugs, despite the title of what I'm going to tell you about.

Stoner, by John Williams, is a slim novel, and not a particularly joyous one. But it is so quietly beautiful and moving, so precisely constructed, that you want to read it in one sitting and enjoy being in it, altered somehow, as if you have been allowed to wear an exquisitely tailored garment that you don't want to take off. The only major publication to review Stoner when it was published in 1965 was The New Yorker. Nearly 2,000 copies sold. By the next year, it was out of print. Williams died in 1994.

But last week, a word-of-mouth phenomenon that started in Europe and the United States resulted in Stoner being named Book of the Year in Britain by leading bookseller Waterstones. When I was in London through the fall, the novel was the talk of the town, whispered about with the same enthusiasm and astonishment as the price of houses. Big names in the literary world showered it with accolades, including Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Nick Hornby. Even a Hollywood celebrity fell under its spell. "One of the most fascinating things you've ever come across," said Tom Hanks.

New York Review Books Classics, Stoner's North American publisher, says the number of books shipped to booksellers tripled in the last year. Publishers Weekly has called the book's European sales "astounding." In March, it hit No. 1 in the Netherlands. It's been on Der Spiegel's bestseller list since its September publication in Germany. In Britain, 160,000 copies have sold.

Other books have enjoyed belated literary success, of course. The Sound and the Fury was published to little fanfare in 1929. But William Faulkner's 1949 Nobel Prize win changed all that. And sometimes a movie adaptation of a vintage book can give it a renaissance of sorts. But Stoner had neither catalyst.

Perhaps it is simply a matter of a book finding its perfect moment. We live in an era in which happiness and success are pursued ruthlessly, selfishly. We feel entitled to have them, at any cost, whether that involves divorce or questionable ethics. This is a novel that serves as an antidote to that expectation, reminding us that a life that looks like a failure from the outside, that will be quickly forgotten once it ends, can be a noble, quirky and somehow beautiful experience.

This is a simple story of an ordinary man, William Stoner, born at the end of the 19th century, who escapes a hardscrabble life on a farm in Missouri, rescued by his love of language and literature. He becomes a professor of English at a second-rate university. He meets a young woman, Edith. Looking into her big, pale eyes, "he seemed drawn out of himself into a mystery that he could not apprehend." They marry, but the union is a disaster.

Their honeymoon is pitiful; the intimacy he had hoped for, dashed. "Silently, as if she were asleep, Stoner undressed and got into bed beside her. For several moments he lay with his desire, which had become an impersonal thing, belonging to himself alone. He spoke to Edith, as if to find a haven for what he felt; she did not answer. He put his hand upon her and felt beneath the thin cloth of her nightgown the flesh he had longed for. He moved his hand upon her; she did not stir; her frown deepened." They cannot speak about their problems, lest they fall into deeper alienation. They manage. They carry on. When she announces a sudden urge to have a baby, they have a short-lived frenzy of sexual activity, which stops when she becomes pregnant.

Edith is a dreadful person. She alienates Stoner from their daughter, whose happiness she also tramples. To follow Stoner through these struggles can be painful and frustrating as a reader. He is not the American ideal of a man in control of his own destiny – or happiness. One reviewer dubbed him the "anti-Gatsby" as a reason for why the book failed to take off when it was first published. You want to shake him by his tweedy shoulders and tell him to stand up to his wife, to raise his voice maybe, to tell her what he thinks, to save himself.

At the university, his career sputters along. He makes an enemy of his department head, making matters worse – for decades. (Williams was a professor of English at the University of Denver, and his description of petty academic politics reads like the work of someone taking surreptitious notes at dreary faculty meetings.) A love affair with a younger woman starts with great promise, but it, too, comes to an end. He does the right, undramatic thing, which does not follow the usual contemporary script of putting yourself first, everyone else be damned.

And yet, all of this is so wonderfully told. Of the love Stoner experiences, "he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day by the will and the intelligence and the heart." Despondent about the meaning of his life at middle age, he sits at his desk. "He heard the silence of the winter night, and it seemed to him that he somehow felt the sounds that were absorbed by the delicate and intricately cellular being of the snow."

Williams was similar to his protagonist in many ways. Raised in Texas, he, too, came from a background of farmers. His start was inauspicious; he flunked out of junior school, though later made it to university. Stoner, Williams's third novel, had some champions over the years. In 1966, literary lion Irving Howe described Stoner as "serious, beautiful and affecting." In 1973, when it was published in England (the same year Williams's fourth novel, Augustus, won the U.S. National Book Award) C.P. Snow wrote that "very few novels in English … have come anywhere near its level for human wisdom or as a work of art." Still, it remained largely unknown.

Then, in 2006, Edwin Frank, editorial director of New York Review Books Classics, decided to reissue it. He had heard about it from a bookseller in Manhattan, and devoured it in one sitting. A review in 2007 in The New York Times called it a "perfect novel." Sales were reasonable. Momentum gathered when French novelist Anna Gavalda took an interest in it, translating it into French in 2011. Soon it was being published in various European countries.

Think of it as a boomer thing, but not the annoying kind. This one is not about reinventing old age, or retirement, or fitness. If you were alive in 1965 and old enough to read literature of this calibre, you probably didn't want to know this stuff. You had worlds to conquer and money to earn and love to make and revolutions to lead.

But now? Well, we all, at some point, are better off to learn acceptance of the life we have lived and the mistakes we have made. We could all use a bit of Stoner's humility. Being aware of how painful life can be makes it real – and lovely, memorable even, for all its inevitable shortcomings.

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