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NEW YORK OBSERVER

A Reader’s Leisurely Pilgrimage In Search of a Vanished Book
by Andrew Sarris

Mark Moskowitz’s Stone Reader is, quite simply, an unalloyed treasure for any viewer who has ever felt transformed by reading a good novel. The irony is that this film, with its technologically subversive passion for print literature in an age supposedly suspended somewhere in cyberspace, has been brought to the screen by a media person par excellence: a maker of television commercials.

The genesis of the film goes back 30 years to 1972, when Vietnam War protester Mark Moskowitz read John Seelye’s rave review of a first novel, Stones of Summer by Dow Mussman. Mr. Moskowitz purchased the novel, anticipating that it would be a clarion call to his generation, another The Catcher in the Rye or Catch-22. But he couldn’t get past the first 20 pages and put the book aside.

Twenty-five years later, he started reading it again, and this time couldn’t put it down. He began searching for copies to send to friends, and tried to find other works by Mr. Mussman, but couldn’t find anyone who’d heard of the author, much less anyone who’d read the book. The libraries and the Internet were of no help.

At this point, I confess that I began to suspect I was in for a shaggy-dog story; I even wondered whether Dow Mossman and The Stones of Summer were outright allegorical fictions in a supposedly nonfiction film. Not to worry: Stone Reader slowly but eloquently evolved into a wildly serendipitous yearlong pilgrimage through Pennsylvania, Maine, Florida, California, Iowa, Colorado, New York, Texas, Maryland and Indiana in search of an elusive author, an aborted literary career, and any witnesses to the mysterious drowning of one good book in the ocean of literature.

Mr. Moskowitz is a leisurely, easily distracted, defiantly bookish detective. He savors every clue —- and stops frequently to smell the roses. He’s more than willing to converse with anyone with any thoughts on writers like Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) or Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind), each of whom produced only one novel in a lifetime.

The late, ghostly Leslie Fiedler (1917-2003), revered author of Love and Death in the American Novel, pops up twice during the filmmaker’s journey. His remarks, however insightful, have little bearing on the attempted rediscovery of Mr. Mossman. Indeed, one suspects Mr. Moskowitz of intentional procrastination. But things turn out marvelously, so I would never dream of faulting him for prolonging the suspense. His digressions are an exquisite tapestry made up of the many troubled lives and hard times of serious writers in America over the past 30 years.

Academe is a refuge for many of the authors interviewed by Mr. Moskowitz: Frank Conroy (Stop-Time), head of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop; Bruce Dobler at the University of Pittsburgh; John Seelye (who reviewed The Stones of Summer in The New York Times Book Review) at the University of Florida; Robert Downs (The Fifth Season) at Penn State; and Fiedler, too, in his tenured sanctuary at SUNY Buffalo. To listen to these and a half-dozen other articulate lovers of books talking about writing, and about their attempt to survive in an economic climate inhospitable to seriousness of any kind, is to mourn creative lives cheerfully endured with few material rewards.

When, at last, he’s ready to deliver the solution to the cultural "crime" of literary annihilation, Mr. Moskowitz does so with an overpowering emotional kick that left me close to tears: Here was a supposedly defeated human being without a trace of bitterness or self-pity. Very real indeed, with a vibrant and active mind, Mr. Mossman is a sublime reminder of how much we owe to the good and great writers who have enriched our existence.

I’ve often written that the cinema will never die. Mr. Moskowitz gives us hope that the novel will never die either, and that books will never become technologically obsolete. Stone Reader is more than a film —- it’s a labor of love in the best sense, and a gift to civilized life on this planet.

 

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