The Stone Reader

After reading George’s entry on Mark Moskowitz’s fascinating literary quest documentary, The Stone Reader, I’ve been waiting for some time to actually see the film for myself. The doucmentary focuses on Moskowitz’s appreciation for Dow Mossman’s 1972 novel, The Stones of Summer, and his desire to track down Mossman who never published another novel.

The film opens, interestingly, with a scene in which Moskowitz self-consciously calls attention to the contrived nature of documentary truth. We see him “selling himself” to the director or photography, while Moskowitz’s own son holds the boom mic. Later, we see Moskowitz, who also directs and produces campaign commercials, working at his editing machine, putting the film together. Throughout the film, he carefully crafts an image of himself as an avid consumer of books, with bookshelves prominently displayed in nearly every interior shot and boxes arriving frequently at his house.

The quest narrative provides an interesting framework for telling the story of literary admiration, even if it seemed a little artificial to me (the Salon critic had the same impression I did, calling it a “shaggy dog” story). In a sense, it allows Moskowitz to indulge his appreciation for the novel. It also allows him to implicitly criticize the ways in which the publishing industry can devour the labor of even the most talented and promising writers (such as Mossman, whose original publisher, Bobbs Merrill, stopped publishing fiction).

More than anything, the film seems to convey how deeply authors such as Mossman and his mentor at Iowa, William Cotter Murray, needed to have their labor affirmed by a reader. In this regard, Mossman’s reaction to Moskowitz’s quest is fascinating: “You’re more than the ideal reader. You’re in another dimension.” The build-up to meeting Mossman was nicely developed, and I found these sequences to be utterly fascinating, in part because I do find that image of short-lived fame to be such an intriguing concept.

At the same time, the film subtly emphasizes what it describes as a declining literary culture. We hear a Norman Mailer interview on Moskowitz’s radio, in which Mailer suggests thatthe novel will soon disappear. We see greybeards such as literary critic Leslie Fieldler, former Iowa creative writing professor Murray, and John Seelye, the NY Times critic whose review prompted Moskowitz to buy the book, all lamenting what the Salon writer, Laura Miller, decribes as their “tenuous hold on a culture that is ebbing away.”

I did notice, like George, that the film had a somewhat masculinist tone, with few, if any, women having prominent roles (the only woman he interviews is his mom), a fact the film seems to gloss. In fact, I wondered if Moskowitz’s decision to emphasize his wife’s request not to appear in the film might have been an attempt to acknowledge that criticism to some extent. I also found the decision not to clearly identify the subject matter of the book (or Moskowitz’s reasons for enjoying it so much) to be a compelling omission. You get veiled references to the beauty of the language, to the Vietnam War, but very little in the way of specifics, and so I found the film to be less about the novel itself, and more about Moskowitz’s nostalgia for a literate culture that he fears is fading away (Harry Potter notwithstanding).

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