The film that brought a great American novel back to life.
In 1972, critic John Seelye wrote the following of The Stones of Summer, a newly-published work by first-time novelist Dow Mossman:
"The Stones of Summer cannot possibly be called a promising first novel for the simple reason that it is such a marvelous achievement that it puts forth much more than mere promise. Fulfillment is perhaps the best word, fulfillment at the first stroke, which is so often the sign of superior talent and which is also a frightening thing, for the author may remain forever awed by the force and witness of his first production. I don't think, however, that this will happen in the present instance. Dow Mossman's novel is a whole river of words fed by a torrential imagination and such a source is not likely to stop flowing."
Seelye's words would prove sadly ironic.
Facts of the Case
In 1972, Mark Moskowitz, then 18, read John Seelye's review of The Stones of Summer in The New York Times Book Review and immediately went out and bought a copy. Less than a hundred pages into the tome, he bogged down in the dense prose and gave up. Then, in 1998, Moskowitz plucked the yellowed paperback from his crowded shelves and gave it another pass. This time, it struck a chord; this time he saw what Seelye's fussing had been about. Once done with the book, and still hungry for Mossman's prose, Moskowitz hit Amazon.com to find out what the writer had produced in the years between 1972 and 1998. He found nothing. Internet searches led to quick dead-ends. Moskowitz's friends—most of them voracious readers—had never heard of Mossman or The Stones of Summer.
Moskowitz determined to find out what had happened to the writer, why a sophomore effort had never arrived. Since he's a producer of political advertisements by trade, he grabbed a 16-mm camera to capture his hunt for posterity. The result was Stone Reader.
Stone Reader is one part literary mystery, one part examination of the surprisingly common phenomenon of the single book author, and one part Moskowitz autobiography. Sound disjointed? It's not, because in the end, it all adds up to a collective meditation on the joys of reading by a group of people (Moskowitz and his interviewees) deeply in love with literature. While the film got mostly glowing reviews during its parade through the festival circuit and limited theatrical run, some of the write-ups were tinged with frustration at its lackadaisical approach to solving its central mystery, the fate, both literary and personal, of Dow Mossman. Stone Reader does indeed take a zigzagging path toward its final revelation, in part because Moskowitz carried out his quest in fits and starts between his more immediate responsibilities in the world of political advertising, but also because of his appropriately literary approach to the search.
Somewhere in the middle of the movie, Moskowitz arrives at the point where I would have begun my search. He goes to the campus of the University of Iowa, where Dow Mossman attended the famed Writers' Workshop, and is able to get his hands on the writer's thesis as well as boxes of draft manuscripts and other notes produced during the long writing of The Stones of Summer. It's a logical first step in trying to find an author who wrote one book, published nearly 30 years earlier, then disappeared, but it takes nearly an hour of film narrative for Moskowitz to get there. Stone Reader, you see, isn't solely interested in Mossman's fate. It also seeks to reflect on the human experiences of reading and writing, the consumption and production of literature.
As such, the film unfolds as a series of conversations about Mossman and The Stones of Summer, but also about other books and literature in general. Moskowitz begins with conversations with personal friends and acquaintances who are either lifelong readers or have some connection to the literary or publishing worlds. He moves on to subjects like literary theorist Leslie Fiedler, who has much insight into the production of literature and the toll it might take on a first-time writer, but has no specific knowledge of Mossman. Then, Moskowitz talks to writers Frank Conroy and Bruce Dobler, who attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the same time as Mossman and are familiar with the environment in which The Stones of Summer was written, but have no memory of their fellow student or his novel. Eventually, the researcher arrives at Bill Murray, the instructor who worked intimately with Mossman during the writing of Stones. In effect, the search starts quite subjectively in Moskowitz's small circle of influence, moves outward into the world of professional writers and literary heavyweights, and narrows again to the tiny circle of people with a direct connection to Mossman and his novel. It's an inefficient way to investigate a mystery, but one that yields added insights into just how human the creative literary process is.
Great books don't just happen; they're shepherded and championed and born of messy interactions between groups of people with varying degrees of attachment and loyalty to the work. One of the interview subjects in the middle of the film is Robert Gottlieb, who edited Joseph Heller's Catch 22, a novel that inspired a tenacious loyalty among its editors, which in turn made possible a tenacious loyalty among readers, elevating the novel to the monster classic that it is today. Heller, then, is a sort of anti-Dow Mossman, a gifted writer whose work is remembered and cherished. The insight Stone Reader offers is that it isn't talent that separates Heller and Mossman, but a series of human-driven circumstances that no one controls and no one can fully explain. The widespread recognition of a book's greatness isn't solely dependent on its intrinsic artistic value. As the film demonstrates, so many other factors come into play one feels lucky that more of our great literary classics weren't lost. It also makes one wonder how many superlative pieces of literature might be lurking out there, forgotten.
New Yorker Films' two-disc release of Stone Reader is impressive, to say the least. The feature is offered in 1.78:1 anamorphically enhanced widescreen, and the transfer is limited only by the source. Some shots show a fair amount of grain, but overall the image is clean and surprisingly crisp considering the feature was shot on 16 mm. The Dolby Stereo audio is sufficient, given that the soundtrack consists of dialogue and a minimalist acoustic guitar score. It's hard to imagine it could be made to sound better. There are no subtitles.
Extras on the first disc include a commentary by Mark Moskowitz. One would think a commentary on a documentary feature could become redundant pretty quickly, but this one is quite engaging. I'll say no more about the track's content since the picture is part mystery story, and I don't want to ruin the experience for anyone. Also on Disc One is an Other Books extra that features bibliographies for the participants in the film, as well as some recommended reading lists.
Disc Two has a wealth of featurettes that include: additional interview footage cut from the film; new interview footage shot after the film's completion (including a segment with Betty Kelly, an editor at Bobbs-Merrill in the 1970s who worked closely with Mossman on The Stones of Summer); a 35-minute follow-up segment that discusses reactions to the film and the second printing of The Stones of Summer; the reactions of writers A.S. Byatt and Toni Morrison to the film; footage of Stone Reader's exhibition at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival; and more. Like the feature itself, the extras are sometimes about Mossman and his novel, and sometimes about books and reading in general. Together, they make a wonderful, comprehensive two-disc set (a Limited Edition three-disc set is available from the official Stone Reader website, but it's hard to imagine one could need more than what's offered on this jam-packed two-disc set).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
But, you might ask, what about The Stones of Summer? Is it worth all this fuss? Did it really deserve a literary resurrection?
I'm currently reading it and, so far, I'd give it a thumbs-up. I also understand why the 18-year-old Moskowitz gave up on it. The book is long and dense (too long, unfortunately, for me to read it in its entirety before completing this review). Its vivid imagery continually slides back and forth between the concrete and the evocative. The specificity of its detail and the idiosyncrasies of its construction can be daunting. But its voice is confident and sure, and its themes universal. It's a sprawling, complex work like Joyce's Ulysses, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Lowry's Under the Volcano, DeLillo's Underworld, or Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, none of which are famous for making things easy for their readers. Be prepared to work a little if you pick up The Stones of Summer.
Some of my favorite books, though, are the ones I've had to wrestle with a bit, and maybe, just maybe, when I've come to the last page, I'll be able to add The Stones of Summer to that list. The jury's still out on that one.
The jury's not out on Stone Reader, however. If you're a lover of books, it's not to be missed. If you're a dispassionate reader, you might still give it a try…who knows, maybe it'll change your mind about the singular joys of reading.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Commentary by Director Mark Moskowitz
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