The Lost Books of The Stone Reader
I'm not sure what took an Omnivore like me so long, but I finally caught up with The Stone Reader via Netflix recently. It's a little embarrassing to say so--it's like a Broadway hoofer saying, "Oh yeah, I just saw this show called The Chorus Line," about three years into its run. No doubt many readers among you beat me to it, but nevertheless I had a few notes that seemed blog-worthy.
First, if you only saw the movie in the theaters (or rented it but are not the commentary-track fiend that I am), it's worth checking out again on DVD. The movie itself, after all, takes more than two-thirds of its time getting to perhaps its main character, the elusive one-book author Dow Mossman. But if you listen to the commentary track, featuring Mossman and director/main reader Mark Moskowitz, you can have Mossman along with you for the whole movie: commenting on Moskowitz's filmmaking, admiring Leslie Fiedler, endlessly talking books, and giving some perspective on how the movie changed--and didn't change--his life. He's wonderfully articulate, in his roundabout way.
Second, it reminded me what a strange thing it is to talk about books with other readers. Reading is such a solitary activity that I've never really understood book clubs. Book discussions often seem like parallel monologues, where you try and fail to translate your own experience with a book to someone else. There's something about the more shared experiences of movies and music that makes them easier to talk about. But then there are few things more delicious than finding someone who is on the same wavelength with you as a reader--you share enthusiasms back and forth, and you find your own reading extended. (Because what does a reader like more than finding something else to read that might be great, and pointing someone else to a book they might love?) And The Stone Reader shows both of those sides. It's almost comical how hard Moskowitz pushes his enthusiasms--I thought I was an inveterate top-10 lister, but Moskowitz has me beat. The way he actually packs up his favorite books in a box and plunks them down on the desks of whoever he's interviewing just made me laugh (and shudder) in recognition. The reader, as portrayed in the movie, is both a wonderful thing--the reason the books exist--and a bit of a monster. As many people have commented, Moskowitz dominates the movie, sometimes at the expense of the writer he's in search of. But there is such pleasure in finding out some of the books he's loved, and seeing the way he talks books with some of his reading friends, new and lifelong.
And then finally, there are the writers. As much as the book might be the story of one lost writer (and the persistent life of his book, The Stones of Summer), what really struck me was the sense it gave of this whole culture of committed, intelligent writers who are equally as lost to reading history has Mossman (if not as romantically so). There are some of his old Iowa classmates, like Bruce Dobler, whose book-writing career appears to have ended after a promising early start when his third book, Icepick, got what he calls "the second-worst review I've ever seen in the New York Times," or Robert C.S. Downs, who has patiently published a half-dozen novels (and written many more). Or even the authority figures, like Mossman's Iowa teacher William Cotter Murray, who published only two novels, decades ago, long out of print, and John Seelye, whose Times review of Mossman's book first led Moskowitz to it, and who has led what appears to be a fascinating and rewarding writing life but is almost completely out of print too. I hunted down some of their work, which, though unknown to me and forgotten by most, is still out there too, still available to be rediscovered:
- Peoples (1974)
- Going Gently (1975)
- Country Dying (1976)
- White Mama (1979) (made into a "heartwarming TV-movie on CBS" starring Bette Davis!)
- Living Together (1983)
- The Fifth Season (2000) (our Amazon reviewer called it "lovely" and "bleak")
Dan Guenther (a friend of Mossman's whose letters and poems on Vietnam were included in The Stones of Summer):
William Cotter Murray:
- The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1970) (which Mossman praises for its audacity and skill)
- The Kid (1972)
- Prophetic Waters: The River in Early American Life and Literature (1977), part of his series of books about rivers and American lit
And then, for more discoveries, there are the books that people recommend to each other in the movie, many of them classics but others nearly lost:
- The Territory Ahead by Wright Morris: admired by both Moskowitz and Seelye ("a fabulous book") but out of print
- The View from Pompey's Head by Hamilton Basso: Mossman's favorite lost book from the '50s
- Point of No Return by John P. Marquand: Moskowitz's favorite lost book from the '40s
- Something Happened by Joseph Heller: not out of print, but always overshadowed by Catch-22, though Heller's editor, Robert Gottlieb, thinks it's better. It's the one book the movie most made me want to read (along with Stones of Summer).
- History of My Life by Casanova: Mossman's favorite book(s): "It's too bad it cuts off when he's 52, because it really would have gotten good. He was starting to get depressed and realistic."
- The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Mossman makes sure to tell his old prof Murray, in their first phone conversation in decades, "Chapter 14 is the greatest run on memory I ever read."
The DVD special features also include lists of recommended reading from Dobler, Downs, Murray, Mossman, and more, of course. --Tom