In No Place Like Home, Linda Weltner observes: "In real life I have qualms, a moral code, a sense of duty. I live within confines. In books, I am free to soar and to explore. There are no limits to my being." Mark Moskowitz, a maker of political commercials and corporate films who is the creator of this extraordinary documentary, would agree. All of his life he has been a voracious reader. Books have enabled his spirit to soar and his soul to be stretched to the limits.
Eighteen-year-old Moskowitz was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania in 1972 when he came across a 600-page novel called The Stones of Summer by Dow Mossman. He started to read the book but didn't get very far. In 1998 he picked it up again. This time he was swept away by the first-time novelist's coming-of-age story and the clout of the creative writing itself. He set out on a quest to learn more about the book and what happened to its author. All lovers of books and especially devotees of fiction will be enthralled by this fascinating documentary that is really an exploration of one person's enchantment with literature. Stone Reader was the winner of both the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award at this year's Slamdance Film Festival.
Moskowitz looks up Mossman and The Stones of Summer on the Internet and finds nothing. Then he remembers that it was an enthusiastic review of the novel by John Seelye in the New York Times that first turned him on to the book. He tracks the critic down and they talk about Mossman and their shared love of this ambitious work. Moskowitz wonders why the novel never took off and became a bestseller since it was compared to work by James Joyce, Mark Twain, and Malcolm Lowry. An interview with the renown literary critic Leslie Fiedler gives him a chance to explore this issue further as they talk about other "one and done" writers including Ralph Ellison and J.D. Salinger.
Since Mossman was a graduate of the legendary Iowa University Writers' Workshop, Moskowitz leaps at the chance to talk to Frank Conroy, head of this prestigious program, and William Cotter Murray, Mossman's mentor at the Workshop. Interviews with publisher Robert Gottlieb, book jacket designer John Kashiwabara, and literary agent Carl Brandt provide more input on the challenges and difficulties of finding an audience for a novel in a country where literature seems to be losing ground. Moskowitz finally makes contact with the reclusive Mossman and their encounters make for some interesting insights into creativity, fiction, imagination, and the future of the novel.
One of the many endearing things about Stone Reader are the ways in which Moskowitz opens up the subject of books and reading. He and a childhood friend visit a library and share their memories of reading the Hardy Boys. In another scene, the quester talks about his favorite novelists and the important role they have played in his life. Moskowitz seems to have passed on his love of literature to his son who is elated when the latest Harry Potter novel arrives in a FedEx delivery box. As Emily Dickinson once wrote, "There is no frigate like a book / To take us lands away." Stone Reader is a lively and illuminating tribute to the wonderful world of books.
Spiritually Literate Readings of Stone Reader
The Impact of Books. Sometimes the spiritual significance of a film becomes apparent when we realize its effect upon us. Stone Reader is a catalyst to the spiritual practices of meaning, wonder, and zeal. After watching it, we find ourselves recalling our favorite books and their impact upon us at various stages of our lives. Richard R. Niebuhr provides us with a perspective:
"As we make our way through this astonishing world, we remember the verbal environments of the books we formerly read and of the conversations with companions that nourished us . . .
"When we read, we read with and through the journeys we have made and the houses and families in which we have lived. Journeys and dwellings interpret each other. Our lives are marked by graphic memories and images."
from The Strife of Interpreting: The Moral Burden of Imagination
What books did you cherish most as a child? as a teenager? as a young adult?
Reading as Practice. Stone Reader reveals how reading books is good for the soul. Here are some quotations by book lovers of all stripes. See which one best expresses your feelings.
"We use books like mirrors, gazing into them only to discover ourselves. We also use them like larders, extracting from them those items we need to satisfy our hungers of the moment." (Joseph Epstein)
"Read for ideas, not for authors." (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.)
"Reading is a mysterious process, entirely private, perhaps even secret: a rent in the fabric of time, so to speak, a sudden lifting of the veil that separates one consciousness from another." (Joyce Carol Oates)
"They will read, and their reading will become one more adventure a source of excitement and a wonder. And anguish too. One never knows what to expect in the next line, on the next page: another catastrophe? another warning? another miracle?" (Elie Wiesel)
The Value of a Book. Stone Reader challenges us to consider the future of books in the digital age. Will they endure or be transformed from a reading object to a collectible? Annie Lamott speaks to this question with a perspective with which Mark Moskowitz would no doubt agree:
"For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things you don't get in real life, wonderful lyrical language, and quality of attention. . . . An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift."
The two-disc DVD is packed with extras that elaborate on the theme of what really goes on in book publishing. The audio commentary features the director Mark Moskowitz and also his subject, Dow Mossman. The original editor of the novel, Betty Kelly, talks about that experience. Veteran book critic Leslie Fiedler talks about the relationship between authors and readers, a subject also covered in interview with A. S. Bryant, Toni Morrison, Robert C.S. Downs, Frank Conroy and Bruce Dobler. A "What Happens Next" documentary focuses on Moskowitz's fascination with a new author. The DVD also contains extensive book lists.