When I was 13-years-old, my favorite song was “Worlds Away” by a band called Strange Advance. For a while, the song would materialize on various radio stations and even made an appearance on Casey Kasem’s Top 40. I never bought the 45, and later regretted that, because the song and the band quickly vanished from the musical landscape. The melody, however, stayed in my head for years.
Even after forgetting the group’s actual name and having only a fleeting, foggy idea of the title, periodically I found myself asking friends and acquaintances if they knew the song. I’d hum some of the tune and dig up some of the lyrics from my memory, but even the most musically inclined people hadn’t a clue. Then one day about nine years ago, I hit pay dirt. I actually found the track, thanks to a certain music sharing program. After the initial few listens, there I was, thrust back to 1983 and all my pre-adolescent glory.
In the 2002 documentary The Stone Reader, filmmaker Mark Moskowitz heads out on an exhaustive search to find out whatever happened to Dow Mossmon, the author of the 1972 novel, The Stones of Summer. Moskowitz became obsessed with the book when he read it as a teenager. He was equally captivated with discovering the reasons why Mossmon never wrote another thing afterward. While my search for “Worlds Away” was only half-hearted and not nearly as reverent as Moskowitz’s hunt for Mossmon, as I watched Stone Reader, I completely understood the drive behind Moskowitz’s mission.
The Stone Reader is not only a film about Moskowitz’s quest to find the man behind the novel, it’s about the fascination many of us have with the things that have shaped our lives. Throughout the narrative, Moskowitz rediscovers his past. He interviews his mother about what books she read to him as a child. He also talks to his childhood friend, Johnny Goldstein, about his love of reading, and the two reminisce about their favorite experiences growing up. At one point, Moskowitz realizes something important: “I began to understand that what I was looking for was not just Dow, which of course only made me want to find Dow that much more.”
After interviewing those close to home, Moskowitz takes his sleuthing on the road. Over a five-year-period, he sought out anyone who may have been associated with the book. Along the way, he speaks with many graying, bearded, book world figures including John Seelye, who wrote the original rave review in the New York Times, and John Kashiwabara who designed the book’s dust jacket. Literati such as late critic Leslie Fiedler and renowned editor Robert Gottlieb get face time and discuss at length the idea of the literary one-hit-wonder. Margaret Mitchell, Harper Lee, and Ralph Ellison are mentioned, and in consensus, they decide that although Joseph Heller, Jack Karouac, and J.D. Salinger all wrote more than one novel, they should be categorized as one-book-authors due to the giantess of Catch 22, On the Road, and Catcher in the Rye, respectively.
Despite all the discussion of novels and scribes, nobody remembers much of anything about The Stones of Summer or Dow Mossman. Moskowitz is clearly perplexed, saying more than once: “I can’t believe a guy could write a book this good and just disappear and never do anything again.”
While some of the film’s most memorable moments come from insights by those the filmmaker talks with, Moskowitz himself offers perhaps the most cogent take on his passion when he says, “I think reading is the only thing that keeps me sane. A different book everywhere – Anna Karenina on airplanes, Colin Dexter in the hotel room…. Milos Forman’s autobiography in the bathroom. The place becomes the book. The book becomes a place within the place.“
Later on, Leslie Fiedler expounds on the labor and love of writing: “Writers keep on writing because they keep loving words that are at their command and keep on loving an audience which they hope will hear the words. . . they cease writing when they fall out of love. The act of writing a book is an act of falling in love with yourself and the audience.”
When the camera isn’t pointed at a person to capture conversation, it distills a myriad of quiet, compelling images: the sun streaming through leaves, the seasons changing outside Moskowitz’s house, a lone boy on a Ferris wheel watching the carnival lights below. Meanwhile, tranquil guitars accompany the wistful vistas. It makes you want to curl up with a good book by a window and simply lose yourself. We also see that Moskowitz’s bibliophilia has transferred onto his son when the boy rips open an Amazon.com box and pulls out a long waited for copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
And what about the novel, The Stones of Summer? It remains a mystery. I haven’t read it, but after seeing this film I plan on buying a copy. One of the benefits resulting from Moskowitz’s tireless efforts is that the book is now back in print. Yet to compare The Stone Reader documentary to the subject volume itself, would be beside the point. The film is not merely about an elusive tome or a missing writer. It’s a testament to the love of all literature – an ode to those who read it and to those who write it. In an interview with Indiewire, Moskowitz says, “I realized. . . that the film wasn’t about finding Mossman, the film was about how much fun I was having talking about books with people, it didn’t matter if I find [sic] him or not.”
At the end of the film, Frank Conroy (Director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop) reminds us, “There are some pleasures that simply never run out and books are one of them. . . In every way from simply diverting yourself from life you enter worlds that you couldn’t possibly enter in any other way. You feel the pressure of another human soul on the other side of the book. . . When I read Dickens, the old man may as well be sitting right next to me. That’s how close he is. I feel him. He’s right there. He’s with me.”