By: Chris Vognar
Stone Reader makes you want to pick up a great novel and consume it in one long gulp. It's a love letter to literature and literacy, disguised as an awkward, stop-and-start manhunt for a long-lost writer. But like most journeys worth taking, this one is all in the sights and sounds and people you encounter along the way.
The hunter is Mark Moskowitz, a political ad man who comes upon an old novel called The Stones of Summer. He tried it as a young man and put it down, but this time, he's mesmerized. His prey is Dow Mossman, who wrote that novel back in 1972 before seemingly dropping off the face of the earth. Mr. Moskowitz's trip takes him to Iowa and Maine, down blind alleys and dead ends. Through all his travels and encounters, he has books on the brain. And his enthusiasm is contagious. Stone Reader is a bibliophile's dream film, dedicated to the joys of fiction and the passions of those who need books like they need food, water and air.
Mr. Moskowitz is an ingratiating chatterer, and it often seems as though he's more interested in talking books with his new friends than in finding Mr. Mossman. All the better. His own ruminations on reading take in such matters as where and when we've read various favorites: "The place becomes the book; the book, the place within the place." He has bought multiple copies of The Stones of Summer off the Internet but carries his battered, paperback copy everywhere he goes.
Mr. Moskowitz possesses the admirable trait of looking ridiculous and not caring. And he makes no bones about being at the center of his story, even if his goal is finding an author. Some of the funniest moments involve the filmmaker and his mother, who embarrasses her son with recollections of his childhood.
"You only wore the linings of jackets," she tells him to genuine embarrassment. "I've come a long way," he replies, sheepishly.
Stone Reader is one of those documentary/personal essays in which the filmmaker is never far away but always shares the spotlight with others.
It's his good fortune that those others turn out to be great company. They include the literary critic Leslie Fiedler, hampered by a stroke but still passionate about books; William Cotter Murray, the professor who guided Mr. Mossman through his only novel at the Iowa Writers' Workshop; and Robert Gottleib, editor of Joseph Heller's Catch-22.
Running throughout are the subtexts: Why do we read? What choices do we make that require us to read less? And, where in the world is Dow Mossman?
Stone Reader is either wonderfully free-associative or maddeningly digressive, depending on your point of view. Mr. Moskowitz goes where his nose tells him, which is why the film works so well.
Stone Reader is full of sharp discussion about Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison, J.D. Salinger and other novelists who tasted greatness only once. But Mr. Moskowitz's real talent is going where the story takes him.
Stone Reader is too long by about a half-hour, and the landscape shots get repetitive, despite their beauty. But it should delight anyone who loves to curl up with a book, or loves to tell someone about a book worth curling up with. Get this guy on Oprah, and quick.