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TONE READER follows my quest to find a long out-of-print book The Stones of Summer and a forgotten

writer, Dow Mossman. The novel is one of youth and rebellion, written from 1965-1971 when I was a teenager and rebellion was at the heart of the arts and the new consciousness of young Americans.

Although I was a passionate reader, I couldn’t get into the book back then. But when I came across it again in 1998, the pages of the old paperback literally coming unglued in my hands, I found myself as moved and as struck by its originality as I remember the reviewer to have been in 1972.

As soon as I finished it I hopped onto the internet to find the writer’s other books. There were none. Nor was there any trace of the writer, or even the publisher. Why no readers? Why no books? Did Mossman just stop writing? Was he even alive? I took time out from my other work and started filming what I found. Joined by cinematographer Joe Vandergast and then others who became intrigued by the quest, I looked for clues.

What began as a quest had now became an obsession. Months turned into seasons, seasons into years. I crisscrossed the country ruminating with others about books that have gone in and out of favor, about the future of reading, and about the fate of other ambitious first novels.

Robert Gottlieb, the editor of Catch-22, who ran Knopf for 20 years, told me how and why “fiction has changed” and speculated on problems Mossman may have encountered. Frank Conroy, head of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, who didn’t publish a second novel for nearly 20 years after Stop-Time, reflects “it may have been too late” for such a novel in 1972. Leslie Fiedler, critic and author of Love and Death in the American Novel, a book I clutched in my hand for months, reading it everywhere in college, even as The Stones of Summer lay forgotten on my apartment floor, told me he has been “fascinated by ‘one book’ writers for years.”

The more I learned, the more I realized the answers I had been seeking were buried in the novel. Using the book as a compass, I solved one mystery only to open the door to others. While some see Mossman’s silence as an abandonment of talent, others see it as part of a larger dilemma: the course American literature has taken over the last thirty years, the demise of the novel in the digital age, and, as reading wanes, the conversion of the book from reading object to collectible.

As I worked on the film I realized something I must have known all along -- how books create lifelong bonds among their readers in a way few other experiences do.

 
 

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