A Filmmaker Explores His Addiction to Reading


By: Janet Maslin

In 1972 $9.95 came between Mark Moskowitz and his destiny. He was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania then, and he had a job in a bookstore. Along came a well-reviewed doorstop of a novel by a brand-new author, and this young clerk was intrigued. But he would not buy it in hardcover. As Mr. Moskowitz still remembers —- and he remembers any book-related factoid —- the price was steep compared with the $6.95 for Eudora Welty's latest, The Optimist's Daughter.

Then the paperback came along. Mr. Moskowitz bought it. (About $1.50, he says.) He read 20-odd pages, then put the book aside for 20-odd years, until he rediscovered it in 1998. Then he read it, loved it, fell hard. The book's pent-up main character really spoke to him. An obsession was born.

"You know that book we're always having to look for?" he heard one employee tell another at the Gotham Book Mart recently, as he paid a visit to New York from his home near Philadelphia. "This guy made a movie about it." Mr. Moskowitz has indeed managed to put a wild case of bibliophilia on film.

The book is The Stones of Summer, a luxuriantly long-winded coming-of-age story that roams from Iowa to Mexico in language ripe with early-70's eccentricity. ("When August came, thick as a dream of falling timbers." "The conversations inside the car were like great wood eyes." "They walked down streets as quiet as falling names.")

The author is Dow Mossman, who grew up in Cedar Rapids and attended the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. And after making his grand, impassioned debut as a novelist, Dow Mossman was not heard from again.

Thirty years ago reviewers compared his work to that of Joyce, Twain, Salinger and Lowry. (From C. D. B. Bryan: "I don't believe the phrase `first novel' can adequately describe a book this exuberant, complex, funny, fat, touching, infuriating, lyric and vicious.") Then what happened? "For me," said Mr. Moskowitz, "it's like a guy's been regaling you with great stories at the dinner table for five hours. Then he gets up and leaves, and you never see him again."

Mr. Moskowitz's film, a documentary called Stone Reader, that opens at the Film Forum next month, is his effort to get to the bottom of Dow Mossman's story. A prizewinner at last year's Slamdance Film Festival, an alternative festival that coincides with the Sundance Film Festival, Stone Reader is devoted entirely to matters of publishing, criticism and reading.

Stealing time from his usual job as a maker of political commercials and corporate films (he made 77 ads for Al Gore's presidential campaign in 1988), he sought out anyone he could find with a connection to The Stones of Summer, from the publisher Robert Gottlieb to John Kashiwabara, the designer of the book jacket. Then he sat each one down and peppered him with questions about "Dow."

If Mr. Moskowitz makes the phantom author sound like an old friend, no wonder. He thinks he has 20 or 30 friends of this kind. These are writers whom he reads uncategorically: William Wharton, Martin Amis, W. G. Sebald, Milan Kundera and Siri Hustvedt, among them. He also reads consecutively, trying to read everything an author has previously written before picking up a new work. He even reads geographically. On a business trip that he takes every year, Mr. Moskowitz likes to read a mystery on his way to his destination. (He can usually count on a new one from Jonathan Kellerman.) He picks something more serious and European on the way home.

Since Mr. Moskowitz appears in his own film and makes his reading habits part of its story, an inevitable question arises: How did he get this way? By the time he was a high school senior, he was spending most of his time reading, even in the classroom, when his attention was supposed to be elsewhere. Finally a teacher called him aside and made a suggestion.

She would give him a list of names, and he would choose two authors from it. Then he would read everything the two had written and deliver a term paper about each author, in lieu of doing his schoolwork. John Barth and Saul Bellow thus became the first writers he read with what has now become a characteristic intensity.

Years later he encountered the same teacher at a friend's wedding. And she explained something about the fateful list of writers. She had been certain, she said, that Mr. Moskowitz was fastidious enough to choose either the first two names on the list (hence Barth and Bellow) or the first and last. To do him a favor, she dropped Émile Zola and let the list end with Kurt Vonnegut instead.

Mr. Moskowitz went on to read all the authors on the list and then some. And he began to ask himself some questions: "Why am I reading during my child's softball game? Why don't I mind political trips, where I read when I'm traveling? Why don't I mind when somebody makes me sit in a waiting room for 20 minutes? What have I done with my whole life? I've spent a huge amount of time sitting around doing nothing."

The answers, he thought, might lie in sharing his addiction to books and inviting others to do the same, giving vent to his inner English teacher. He has never actually taught because "I'd be terrible at that," he said. "I'd lecture and lecture and never remember to ask people what they think."

What are the prospects for a film just over two hours (once four hours) about favorite novels and one-hit-wonder authors? He is hoping for something unusual. "I don't think this film is as passive as most films," he said. "People have told me it's the closest they've come to reading a book in a movie theater." With that in mind, he hopes that the film, which he financed largely on his own, will prompt its share of post-screening conversations.

He has another goal as well, of course: to get The Stones of Summer back into print.

Though anyone who sees the film is bound to be curious about the book, it is long gone, so hard to find in used bookstores that libraries are a better bet. With that in mind, he has started a not-for-profit Lost Books Club and said he hoped to republish several titles eventually, including The Furies by Janet Hobhouse. And as word of his project gets around, he has received a couple of dozen other candidates for reprinting.

"Every single one was completely new to me," he says. "But read other people's lost books? I hate to turn what's been a great love into a piece of work."

Mr. Moskowitz has also been able to accomplish two other things. He has thus far sustained some suspense and mystery about Dow Mossman's post-1972 history, although the film ultimately explains it.

He said that Stone Reader was akin to a literary Crying Game (for secretiveness, not for cross-dressing), and that the experience of watching it would be spoiled if audiences know where it ended.

"We went out with a camera not knowing what we would discover, and I'm hoping people will want to take that journey along with me," he says. "It isn't journalism in any way, shape or form. This film is not about looking up the facts. It's about the reading culture."