Stone Reader

In his day job, Mark Moskowitz makes a living producing high-profile political spots, but his true and consuming passion is reading. Moskowitz doesn’t read to keep abreast of new diets or apprised of lives laid bare. He reads for the sheer pleasure of it.

One singular delight is The Stones of Summer, by Dow Mossman. Back in 1972 Moskowitz came across a New York Times Book Review rave by critic John Seelye who extolled the 600-page tome as the “book of a generation.” Moskowitz eagerly picked up the title but set it aside after struggling through its first twenty pages. Twenty-five years later he returns to the crumbling paperback and devours it: He’s a believer.

When Moskowitz tries to share his good fortune with his inner circle, he is shocked to discover that the book is out of print—copies are all but extinct. Despite the cultural imprimatur of the Times and his own fealty to Stones, it seems that he is alone in his devotion. Moskowitz does a bit of online sleuthing to discover that Mossman was a “one-hit-wonder.” Thus are the wheels set in motion for Stone Reader—a documentary about one man’s odyssey to uncover the fate of one would-be seminal novel and its Salingeresque author.

While today’s New York Times bestseller list is often fodder for next year’s blockbuster (or art) film, too often something is lost in translation. Subtexts and intentions disappear; narrative is often supplanted by action. Stone Reader is a risky challenge, then: it assays the intangible – the love of reading. Despite its sometimes ingratiating filmmaker, a Jeffrey Tambor/Dr. Phil manque who is pervasive throughout, the film is a riveting literary adventure, coming as close to illustrating this love as has ever been documented onscreen. In Moskowitz’s case, his is an obsession that makes the household strain of bibliophilia seem pedestrian.

Shot over a year’s time, Stones takes Moskowitz clear across the country. He heads up to Maine to convene with John Seelye, and then over to Iowa to confab with Iowa Workshop chair and novelist Frank Conroy. Moskowitz redefines deep background. He takes meetings with many well-known critics, including Leslie Fielder (author of Love and Death in the American Novel) and eminence grise Robert Gottlieb. Neither of them has ever heard of Mossman. Undaunted, Moskowitz treks down to Florida to surprise John Kashiwabara. Although he was Stones’ book jacket designer, he has no memory of the project either.

As clues crystallize, Moskowitz finds that the little known publisher Bobs Merrill (which, to its credit, published Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead ) took on the title, later to be bought-out by IT&T during publication. Over time, he tracks down Mossman’s original agent who fills in more gaps. Moskowitz, clearly in no rush, discovers that Mossman did in fact graduate the Iowa Workshop and returns to locate his advisor. All told, he traverses nine states before discovering Dow Mossman. Still alive seventeen years later, he lives spitting distance from his alma mater. Moskowitz discovers a low-key Mossman who hasn’t written for more than a decade. He’s recently been fired from his newspaper job. Not as a reporter, but as a delivery boy.

In truth, publication of the novel almost killed Mossman. He went through 12 drafts, writing some 1,200 pages; he was hospitalized at nearby St. Lukes. Despite the torment, he characterizes the publication of the novel as the “highlight of my life.” Still, to this fifty-six year-old, “in a sense the book never happened.” He suffers from acute anxiety and has been a welder and a caretaker. He shares this with his literary stalker – he still views books as sacred objects.

Many of Moskowitz’s subjects speak of one-hit-wonders such as Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind), and Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man). Perhaps Mossman wasn’t such an exception after all. Moskowitz often digresses and always takes the long way around, almost savoring his setbacks. As a marker of a vanishing culture the film should not be missed.

– Jerry Weinstein