Mark Moskowitz’s documentary Stone Reader is a bibliophile’s wet dream, a love letter to reading as well as the texture and heft of the physical book. It’s also an open, expansive, cleverly made film that’s accessible to intelligent people everywhere. I don’t think I’ve read a single book among the dozens mentioned in Stone Reader, and I still loved it.
The film is an intellectual road movie. In 1972, Moskowitz bought Dow Mossman’s The Stones of Summer based on a New York Times review, tried to read it, and gave up on it. Twenty-five years later, he picks it up again and loves it. He wonders what happened to its author, and finds that he’s published nothing in the meantime and appears to have dropped out of circulation entirely.
So Moskowitz begins a two-year journey to find Mossman, although it’s more like a leisurely stroll full of detours. He visits with the critic who wrote the original glowing review, the author Frank Conroy (who heads the writing program at the University of Iowa, where Mossman studied), and various other people involved in one way or another with the business of literature. At each point he inquires about The Stones of Summer and Mossman, and if — as is usually the case — they’ve never heard of either, Moskowitz engages them in conversations about reading, authors, or books. These discussions don’t make much sense if you’re unfamiliar with the writers or their works, but the passion of Moskowitz and the people he talks to is infectious.
Moskowitz’s quest is, fundamentally, a bit dishonest. He claims to exhaust all his resources — he even visits the guy who designed the jacket for Mossman’s book — but he avoids the best sources like they were bill collectors. In Iowa City he finally connects with William Cotter Murray, who was Mossman’s advisor at the University of Iowa and one of several people to whom The Stones of Summer was dedicated. Murray tells him casually that Mossman lives up the road in Cedar Rapids. You might think that Murray should have been one of the first people the filmmaker contacted, and you’d be right.
This is easy to forgive because Moskowitz is a genial tour guide, and the people he trains his lens on have such interesting things to say. What’s more is that while he has the exploratory, easily distracted style of Michael Moore, Moskowitz actually seems to care what other people say. He doesn’t lecture; he engages and inquires.
As the movie ambles down many paths to dead ends, the audience begins to wonder if it will ever see Mossman, or whether he’s still alive, or whether he ever existed. The whole enterprise is a bit of a ruse, but Moskowitz — who earns his living making political commercials — is by nature a playful filmmaker, and Stone Reader is self-referentially very funny. Moskowitz admits at one point that he’s been shooting pretty pictures because the quest for Mossman has gone so poorly, and every time the audience sees one of those gorgeous sunsets, it screams, “Filler!” At another point, Moskowitz is moving around some film cans and comments that the footage in those cans has probably already been shown in the movie.
His winking style allows him to get away with one great bit, when, just as he’s about to show us Dow Mossman, he cuts away to an earlier interview, ratcheting up the suspense and saying — with a big grin on his face — “Fuck you!” to the audience.
Eventually, you do get to spend some time with Mossman, but it’s a bit of a letdown. One of the subtly odd elements of Stone Reader is that you get little sense of the author (or his book, for that matter). He looks and sounds a bit damaged, and after publishing his novel, he became a welder.
Murray relates that he might have sent Mossman to a mental institution, and although he appears to be joking (about being the reason Mossman needed some time away from the real world, not that he took it), the advisor wants to take the comment back almost immediately. Not because it’s hurtful, but because it’s probably true.
Here and in spending so much time talking about one-novel writers and this particular one-novel writer, Stone Reader hints at the difficulty of writing but never really goes anywhere with it. Mossman is a destination but not the true subject, and as a result he becomes a secondary and sketchy character in the movie.
That’s because the movie is really about reading, not writing. Beyond that, Moskowitz makes a strong case that reading is not a solitary activity but a social one. Stone Reader offers scene after scene of complete strangers bonding over books, making immediate, strong connections within minutes of meeting. The movie seems full of bookish pleasures, but its myriad human moments set it apart.