Stone Reader

Today I watched “Stone Reader”, a documentary film about a reader’s quest to discover why Dow Mossman, author of the 1972 novel “The Stones of Summer“, vanished after publishing the critically acclaimed novel.

A friend of mine who went to Iowa gave me this documentary a few weeks ago, and I just got around to watching it today as I began to sort my apartment for my move. It was a good choice for right now, as I prepare to mentally transition from full time job to my MFA program.

Ostensibly, this is a film about the dogged pursuit of the filmmaker’s favorite author, but it is mostly a meditation on reading and the love of books, a discussion about authors who only write single novels, and a chance to show off some gorgeous Iowa scenery. The way that Mark Moskowitz goes about finding Dow Mossman might not have been the most direct or effective route, but any viewer who is also a reader will empathize with his quest. There’s nothing quite as wonderful as listening to someone who loves a particular book tell you why they love it–recalling their favorite parts, describing their passion for this particular work of art with that glitter of excitement and infectious enthusiasm. This movie is like talking to that person. For two and a half hours. It will make you smile, even if it is a tad exhausting. What is also really interesting to me is that this film touches on many of the themes that Elizabeth Gilbert discusses in her excellent TED Talk–writing and mental health–and how we, as a society, cannot just accept that people’s art will undo them.

On a more personal note, it was really neat to see the Writers’ Workshop role in the film, and the interview with Frank Conroy, who directed the Workshop until his death in 2005.

I did have a few reservations about this film. First of all, it was definitely too long. I appreciated the roundabout journey, and I can definitely enjoy longer films, but I was starting to get twitchy towards the end. (That is, despite actually liking the movie, I can completely understand what this reviewer was mocking.) And while I loved seeing so many literary giants on the screen, I felt really discouraged by the lack of female presence (or any kind of diversity) both in the interviewees and the novels discussed. There’s a brief mention of Emily Bronte (“She only wrote one book! But that’s probably because she died.”), Harper Lee is mentioned twice in passing, and you see the wife of one of the interviewees for a minute or two, as well as the filmmaker’s mother and the hands/feet of his wife (at her request). I mean, really–this film is basically a love letter to the art of the novel, and you can’t discuss a single book by a female author? This actually alienated me from the film a bit, which was incredibly frustrating, because so many other parts of it drew me in.

Regardless of these shortcomings, this is a really excellent documentary for anyone who loves reading. And quite a bit of good came out of it–after “Stone Reader” came out, Dow Mossman began writing again. And after viewing the film in 2003, the CEO of Barnes and Nobles donated $300,000 to The Lost Books Club, a nonprofit that rescues forgotten and out-of-print books. Because of this donation, “The Stones of Summer” is back in print. I’ll be picking up a copy soon.

(“Stone Reader” can be found here.)

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