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SAN FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN

Page-turner
Stone Reader hooks the obsessive bookworm.

by David Fear

THERE ARE ALL kinds of readers, ranging from your casual drone just trying to survive the N-Judah cattle-car commute to those who religiously curl up with a dog-eared classic. But there's a special breed of bookworm who only rarely comes up for natural sunlight between bouts of chain-reading. They're the book addicts, those fiends who fix regularly on the written word and simply can't live without a copy of Angle of Repose or Atlas Shrugged within 50 feet of them at all times.

I know of this phenomenon because I'm one of them I have, on occasion, shunned friends, family, and the outside world for the consuming oblivion of the 800-page novel. And like many who subsist on literary narcotics, I have occasionally moved from using to dealing. I'll catch myself insisting that casual acquaintances simply have to read Lorrie Moore, under penalty of excommunication, or will suddenly notice that I'm shoving my tattered copy of George Saunders's Pastoralia at a stunned houseguest. Though reading is a solitary pursuit, we addicts have a compulsive need to share with others the treasures we've shot up. It turns our sometimes shamefully private experiences into something communal.

I admit all of this now in the spirit of Stone Reader, which is as much a confessional as it is many other things: a mystery, a memoir, a journal, a rant, an odyssey. But at its essence, it's one man's testament to the consuming power that literature holds over a handful of people, and the joy a bibliophile feels when he or she can pass on a personal favorite.

The object of documentary filmmaker-literary superfan Mark Moskowitz's obsession, however, isn't the kind of book that legions have waxed poetic about but "one that fell through the cracks" namely, a book called The Stones of Summer, a little-known work by first-time author Dow Mossman. Moskowitz read a review of Summer in the New York Times back in 1972 and was intrigued enough to pick up a copy. He perused 25 pages and then put it down. A quarter-century later, he picked it up again, read it from cover to cover, and was convinced it was the definitive novel of a generation. He then discovered Mossman had published only that one book before disappearing into thin air. Moskowitz wanted to know what had happened.

The quest for this lost man of letters is ostensibly the film's subject, as Moskowitz and a camera crew set off in search of the one-hit wonder by following a paper trail of Internet searches, defunct publishing-house debris, and names in the book's credits. A longtime devotee of mysteries, Moskowitz manages to construct suspense from the most mundane puzzle-piecing tidbits by structuring the first two-thirds as a whodunit. The "usual suspects" (the author of the book's one review, the teacher of a workshop Mossman attended, the designer of the hardback edition's jacket) are rounded up and interrogated. Clues are scrutinized, leads are followed, and hunches eventually pay off.

Yet it's not even the mystery that structures the journey with our protagonist, nor is it the filmmaking itself that makes this adventure worthwhile (Moskowitz's regular gig involves shooting political campaign ads, which explains the head-scratching motif of warm, amber-lit shots of landscapes). As a first-person cine-diarist, the director falls somewhere between Michael Moore's cult of personality and the grating narcissism of Myles "20 Dates" Berkowitz; his on-screen search for Mossman keeps derailing itself with personal asides, tangential flights of fancy, and some cringe-worthy voice-over narration. He seems hell-bent on constructing a film as long and rambling as the novels he's consumed. Even when the movie's holy grail is within reach, Moskowitz abruptly cuts to discussions on Joseph Heller and Hemingway. Stay on topic! you want to scream. Eyes on the prize!

But those asides are the key to what the film is really about: one man's desire to bond with his fellow bookworms, and his championing of literary obsessiveness. The best parts of Stone Reader are the peeks into Moskowitz's singular madness. His interviews inevitably turn into long digressions on top 10 favorite novels. He hauls around volumes like an encyclopedia salesman, trying to convert one subject after another; he even buys up every copy of Stones he can find and gives them away to people. When he's finally granted an audience with his hero, he wants to discuss ... books. "You're way past an ideal reader," he's told. "You're in another dimension entirely."

What ultimately makes Stone Reader such a page-turner isn't the filmmaker's quixotic quest to canonize Mossman, or even whether everybody must get Stone'd, but the love-letter tribute it is to the reading experience, a subject near and dear to any book junkie's heart. The droning voice of Norman Mailer declaring that the novel "may be a dead form" via a radio interview insinuates that bibliophilia is destined to become just another Shaker dance as well. Don't tell that to the filmmaker's son, who's seen tearing into a Harry Potter book with wide-eyed enthusiasm as the film draws to a close. It's as blatant and manipulative a documentary shot as there is, yet it makes its point. Maybe you can keep a good book down (Stones remains out of print). But there's a new bookworm born every minute.

 

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