Stone Reader

I’ve just spent the last few days enjoying the company of my Canadian friend, Candace, who alerted me to the unorthodox release of Mark Moskowitz‘s documentary, Stone Reader (2002), via Barnes & Noble’s exclusive distribution. Candace joined many critics in enthusiastically lauding the documentary after she recently encountered it at the Calgary International Film Festival, and last night a few of us got together and screened the new DVD.

The film is the debut feature of Moskowitz, an enthusiastic and driven creator of political commercials, part salesman and part investigative journalist. But he relegates his professional career to the background of this film, which focuses instead on his lifelong love affair with reading. Browsing his home library and spontaneously commenting on its organization, Moskowitz revels in fiction from around the world: he loves French novels, offers a brief nod to the Brits (“you already know who they are”), and concedes he has lumped an entire section of books together for no other reason than because they simply fit together in his mind.

Filmed and edited in a charmingly straightforward manner that befits Moskowitz’s direct persona, the movie recounts his obsession with one book in particular: Dow Mossman’s The Stones of Summer, a book describing three decades in the life of a fictional teenager growing up in the ’50s that earned a few rave reviews in 1972 and then…disappeared. Mossman never wrote another book, and the novel soon became out-of-print. Moskowitz decides to document his dogged attempts to track down the elusive author and anyone remotely associated with the novel (the New York Times critic who reviewed it, the artist who designed the cover, the photographer who shot the jacket photo, the agent who promoted the book–even the person to whom the novel is dedicated) in an attempt to discover how the book managed to slip through the cracks of history.

What follows is a wholly engaging film that delves into subjects rarely discussed in such personal terms in American culture: the impact of reading a great novel, the unpredictable vagaries of the publishing industry, the accessibility of culture, the business of art making, the arduous process of writing a novel, and above all, the beautiful and mysterious bond that exists between author and reader. Moskowitz presents himself as a literature fanboy, someone with a burning need to immerse himself in the pleasures of reading as an almost existential compulsion. He’s seemingly less likely to pontificate on a book’s themes than he is likely to buy every copy of the book he can find just so he can adore its shelf position, offer it to friends, and enjoy its physical presence as a perpetual reminder of its personal impact.

What struck me the most about the film was the universality–or convertibility–of its specifics: watching Moskowitz spend hours online searching through forgotten names, used titles, and obscure publishers, and establishing a personal crusade to rescue the novel from oblivion reminded me of my own adventures tracking down films and videos which have somehow elided mass consumption, but that nevertheless deserve the spotlight–or at least a second viewing. It’s so easy to merely accept the corporate structures that define and package art in this country that it takes considerable effort and eccentricity to adopt a self-directed approach to cultural engagement, refusing to acknowledge commercial constraints and discover one’s own passions and interests and buried treasures of forgotten art.

In a year of standout documentaries, Stone Reader is an inspiring and refreshing depiction, not only of the joys to be found in reading, but also the pleasures to be discovered in taking an active role in one’s cultural journey and how such endeavors can sometimes even impact the world at large.