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Strength of “Stone Reader” Lies in the Power of the Written Word

By: Wesley Morris

In May 1972, Mark Moskowitz was a teenager, laid up in bed with pneumonia. In his lethargy, he picked up a copy of The New York Times Book Review and read something that blew his mind. It was a review of a bildungsroman called "The Stones of Summer," a debut work of fiction by someone named Dow Mossman. Eventually, young Mark found a copy and was eager to get lost in it. But for the life of him, he couldn't get beyond the first 20 or so pages. Neither could the rest of the literary world.

Twenty-five years passed, and Moskowitz came across his old copy of Mossman's book, read it, and was blown away. What could the lit world have been thinking? "The Stones of Summer," by this point, was out of print. And so an industry's vague one-hit wonder became Moskowitz's Holy Grail. He embarked on a quest to find out what became of Mossman and why on earth the book disappeared, too.

"Stone Reader," the amazing documentary he's made of that search, is a deep, exhaustive, and moving piece of do-it-yourself detective work. Moskowitz went from teen bibliophile to middle-age dad in suburban Philadelphia whose production company makes political ads. This is the film he made in his spare time over a number of years, and it's one of the most satisfying experiences you're likely to have in a movie theater this year.

Moskowitz, with winning determination, scours the country looking for professors, academics, critics, anyone who might be able to disclose where Mossman is now. The dude who did the book's original jacket can't even remember his design, let alone the author. Mossman attended the Iowa Writers Workshop, where "The Stones of Summer" was his thesis project. Nobody remembers him, neither his professors nor his classmates. And after a while both we and Moskowitz start to wonder if the whole thing's a hoax. Was Mossman ever real?

"Stone Reader" is paved with heartbreaking stories. Along the way, we get to know Moskowitz, who's lovably dogged and stubborn, and sometimes embarrassingly foolish. He takes no interviewee at his or her word and doesn't try to simply jog memories, he beats them like pinatas. And the movie is fuller and more complex for it.

The film testifies to and dramatizes the novelist's lonely, manic-depressive condition better than nearly any other I've seen. (For a perfectly drossy version, try Rob Reiner's "Alex and Emma," which opens today. Or don't.) It's a tribute to the transforming power of reading and a reminder of the Sisyphean task that reading can be.

Everyone Moskowitz meets rhapsodizes about the torture of writing, but they all treasure the seemingly bottomless task of finishing a book. Mossman's situation, we learn, is a poignant symbol of that paradox, and a victim of it for sure.

That old Times review may have done the writer more harm than good. It's one of the most beautiful pieces of criticism you'll ever hear someone read. Moskowitz tracks down the man who took the photo of Mossman for the book jacket (I told you: This film is exhaustive), hands him a copy of the review, and has him recite the opening stanza. The man starts to weep when he's done. And I welled up, too. What we've just witnessed is the spell that words can cast.