In his acclaimed 2002 documentary, Stone Reader,
Mark Moskowitz used his search for the writer of a novel he admired to create a “Huck Finn story for guys who love books.” Now the lost author is back at work, the film is out on DVD, and Moskowitz is leading the fight to revive other forgotten works. By Holly Love

It was nearly midnight, and Mark Moskowitz C’76, a producer and director of commercials and promotional films, was having a crisis of confidence as he worked on his first feature-length work, a labor of love called Stone Reader. He phoned fellow-filmmaker Damon Sinclair, whom he had known since they were both disc jockeys at WXPN in 1974, for advice. Sinclair recounts the call with a dead-on impression of a despairing Moskowitz: “Mark says to me, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. Nobody’s going to watch this. Somebody has to come look at this thing.’” Sinclair immediately drove to Moskowitz’s home studio in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, to review his film-editing handiwork. “I told him, ‘Mark, this is great. This is one of the best ideas ever.’”

And oh, how the validation has blossomed from there. At the 2002 Slamdance Festival, Stone Reader won both Special Grand Jury Honor and the Audience Award for Best Feature Film, a first for its category of nonfiction narrative. The International Documentary Association nominated the film for its highest honor. Film critic Roger Ebert called it “voluptuous” and presented it at his 2003 Overlooked Film Festival. Other reviewers used phrases like “masterpiece of persuasion and advocacy,” “radiates intelligence and compassion,” and “compulsively watchable.”

Stone Reader is about the love of reading. It resurrects, dissects, and exalts the love of reading. That love has defined Mark Moskowitz from boyhood days when he went nowhere without a paperback, to English studies and student employment at Van Pelt library and the Penn Book Center, to his present day habit of reading half-a-dozen books, mostly novels, concurrently. While for some people, books are merely neglected ghosts of the den, for Moskowitz they are oxygen, extensions of his anatomy, more real than reality. In one of Stone Reader’s most moving sequences, he reflects on the tears he shed over Catch-22 author Joseph Heller’s death in 1999, explaining that the voice behind the pages was a friend he thought he could never find in life.

“I started out thinking it would be a short piece for TV maybe, then maybe a short film, or a TV series, and eventually I decided it was worth the commitment of turning it into an independent feature,” says Moskowitz of the film, which he produced over a period of three years and financed by starting a new company, JETFilms. “All my life I’d made friends based on our liking the same books. I believed there’d be an audience of people who were avid enough readers that they’d be interested in a film that raised the same questions that I also wanted insight into. Like, what is the true value of reading? Has my reading all these books over the years been a waste of time? Is reading just a way of being with other people without putting yourself at risk? How much are you actively co-creating with the author when you read? In the film, people articulate things for me about reading that I always sensed but could never verbalize.”

The impact of one particular novel on Moskowitz provided the framework for his 128-minute magnum opus. In 1972, he read a New York Times review of a coming-of-age novel called The Stones of Summer. The reviewer conveyed nothing short of worship for the work, calling it a “marvelous achievement” by a superior new talent, a “holy book.” But at 18, Moskowitz was unable to get through the 552-page book; he recognizes now that it created “a place I wouldn’t learn how to measure until I was a generation older.” Twenty-five years later, he picked up his old worn-out paperback copy and read the whole thing, and this time the book represented a place that he didn’t want to leave. So he searched for more works by the author, Dow Mossman. To his amazement, he found none—nor could he discover any trace of the author himself. Short of death, what could be the reason such a gifted writer never published another word?

The mystery so haunted Moskowitz that he embarked on a quest to solve it—by searching for Mossman. That search is the river that Moskowitz navigates in Stone Reader in order to reach tributaries of homage to the written word. The film’s co-editor Kathy Soulliere says, “It’s like a Huck Finn story for guys who love books.” Viewers see Moskowitz travel the country to interview those who might shed light on Mossman’s whereabouts. And while he has their attention, he also asks them to shed light on bibliophilic culture, great works of fiction, and other one-book wonders such as Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell and To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee. He meets with literati like Frank Conroy, the head of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop (which Mossman attended); literary critic Leslie Fiedler; Catch-22 editor Robert Gottlieb; the writer of the Times review, John Seelye; Mossman’s agent; even the book-jacket designer for The Stones of Summer.

And yet, though the experts do a fine enough job on their own of poeticizing reading and artistic invention, Moskowitz doesn’t remain behind the scenes. It was an exceptionally rare and chancy approach for a documentary maker: He not only made himself Stone Reader’s main character—he made himself, with acute aptness, an open book. Throughout the documentation of his quest, Moskowitz weaves Moskowitz. He reveals the parallel march of his life—we see his son expectantly receive his next Harry Potter book; we’re there when his father dies—and we get to know the filmmaker through his soul-baring, first-person narration describing his enthrallment with literature and with the fate of its creators.

“The fallacy is that a documentary is more credible when the interviewer leaves himself out of it,” Moskowitz says. “But I didn’t set out to be Ken Burns or Bill Moyers. I put myself in the film for you to understand where I’m coming from, with all my flaws, so you can decide whether to buy into it or not. Think of writers who let you feel the filter of their consciousness.” Like Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Ross McElwee’s groundbreaking Sherman’s March, Moskowitz’s film may warrant redefining “documentary.” In the meantime, several reviewers dubbed the film a page-turner, which is especially sweet praise given that Moskowitz once aspired to write books himself.

It was in the classrooms of Bennett Hall that Moskowitz developed a reverence for former Penn English professor Don Graham—to whom Stone Reader is dedicated. “He was never a deconstructionist, overemphasizing the importance of the symbolism in classic literature—or the importance of reading classics at all,” says Moskowitz. “I remember one day, he’s reading to the class, and everybody’s falling asleep. So he says, ‘Do you want to hear this? Me neither,’ and he closes the book. He only wanted to know if a book worked for you—not what it ‘means.’ That approach turns more kids off to reading. He always handed me the right book at the right time, in a quiet way.”

Moskowitz favored the quiet way as a kid, according to his sister, Susan Moskowitz Goldman C’83. “He never shared anything about himself, and always kept his bedroom door locked. Behind it was this growing, phenomenal library. When he left for college, and I finally got to go in there, it was like entering the inner sanctum. I got to discover every Kurt Vonnegut novel, the science fiction, everything, shelf by shelf. That was the first time I ever felt like I truly got to know my brother—through the books he loved. The second time I felt that way was right after seeing Stone Reader.” In every way, the art of storytelling proves to be her brother’s favorite vehicle for connecting with other people. In the film, he meets with John Seelye, who had declared Dow Mossman’s genius superior to William Faulkner’s. “I hit it off with Seelye from the first minute I saw him,” Moskowitz says. “Why? Because we both loved The Stones of Summer.”

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/19/04

The Constant Reader
By Holly Love
Illustration by Brian Cronin

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