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Q: What’s more fun than watching paint dry? A: A documentary about reading.

Actually, if the documentary is Stone Reader, it’s a lot more fun. It has the pace of a good mystery and edge-of-your-seat suspense, which help it overcome most of its flaws.

Looking for Mr. Mossman

Yes, a documentary on reading and books can be fun
Yes, a documentary on reading and books can be fun

Mark Moskowitz is a commercial filmmaker. More importantly, he’s a guy who loves to read.

In 1972, he picked up a book called The Stones of Summer by Dow Mossman, which, according to a New York Times book review, was supposed to be the defining book of his generation. He started it a few times but never got into it.

He kept his copy through several moves and three decades, just in case. A few years ago, he finally read it and loved it. He went to Amazon to look for all of Mossman’s other books and didn’t even find The Stones of Summer. He went to the local library. Nothing. Not only had the author of this great book disappeared, the book itself seemed to have vanished, in a matter of only thirty years.

Stone Reader is Moskowitz’s quest to find out what happened to Mossman and The Stones of Summer.

On The Road Again

Moskowitz did all of the easy research first. He found a few other people who had read the book, and he found the old New York Times review on microfiche. He looked for Mossman on the Internet and had a friend do some footwork in Iowa, where Mossman grew up. The book’s publisher went out of business not long after Stones of Summer came out, so there were no official records to dig through.

What he found was “blind alleys, dead ends, dead people.” Moskowitz was tempted to give up the search as futile, but he pressed on. He contacted agents, he flew to Maine to visit the critic who wrote the Times review, he even talked to the designer of the book jacket and the photographer who took Mossman’s picture for the jacket. But nobody had heard from Mossman or knew how to reach him.

Changing Tack

Moskowitz, meanwhile, wonders whether his documentary will have an ending, and wisely tries to salvage it by making the movie about the power and appeal of novels, and about “one-and-dones” like Margaret Mitchell, Harper Lee, and honorary one-hit-wonder J.D. Salinger.

But saying “it doesn’t matter if I find Mossman” made Moskowitz all the more determined in his search. He discovered that Mossman was part of an Iowa writers workshop, and he even spoke to several of Mossman’s classmates, none of whom remembered him. The professor had retired and couldn’t be found.

At one point I thought I was being had. I thought I was watching a mockumentary, that there was no such person as Dow Mossman, and that The Stones of Summer was a fictitious red herring, an excuse to talk about books and to give the movie a sense of structure.

But when Moskowitz finally located the retired workshop teacher, it was clear he was finally getting close....

The Movie Version

As a film (it was shot on film, at least in part), Stone Reader is flawed. For one, the movie is too self-indulgently long. It clocks in at over two hours. The length wouldn’t be so bad if the movie were more focused. But for example, after two hours, when Moskowitz should be wrapping things up, he tells us that he remembers a similar conversation, shows us his editing software, and takes us back to a conversation that is barely related to the one at hand.

And while the search for Mossman makes for some great suspense, it unfortunately doesn’t comprise the whole movie. It’s easy to get so caught up in the quest that some of Moskowitz’s tangents — like the interview of the book jacket’s designer — are forgettable and pointless. If the suspense didn’t work, perhaps the tangents would be more interesting, but Moskowitz is a victim of his own success. In fact, Moskowitz seems to realize that the tension is working, and he carries it one or two scenes too far.

But Stone Reader is a success. (Hardback copies The Stones of Summer are being offered on eBay for as high as $600.) In spite of its flaws, it’s an interesting journey on a subject that doesn’t immediately lend itself to film. It’s an even better movie for book lovers, like the one I live with. Hearing authors, critics, and readers talk about their passion for books struck a chord with her that rang for days.

Who’d have thought that a documentary about reading could be so much fun?