The first third of Stone Reader accomplishes something very rare in movies: it makes you want to go home and read a book. And not a particular book, but any book. Documentarian Mark Moskowitz's love of books is contagious. Stone Reader documents his search for the author of a long forgotten book, the only book its author wrote. Moskowitz poses lots of questions and possible answers to why an author would write one great book and then vanish. It's not uncommon, he finds.
The movie loses its way when Moskowitz tries hard to emulate other movies without quite pulling it off. It's a detective story, and the way Moskowitz jumps here and there, driving from interview to interview, mirrors his approach to books, but we need to feel the momentum that he says he feels as he gets closer to the elusive author. At one point he seems finally to have the man's address, but instead of going there directly, he stops off to talk to some other folks. Although that may have been the order in which the actual investigation took place, his fuzzy motivations and loose narrative squander the genuine curiosity built up early on. The way his investigation was actually conducted and the way Moskowitz wants to present it increasingly butt heads. Strangely, his interview style often relies on surprising the interviewee with information about the book or his quest, but the effect is undercut when the interviewee obviously feigns surprise ("What's that you have there?"). He uses ambush techniques where they are hardly warranted, marching into a university library with cameras rolling when the library is more than happy to let him see the archives. The attempt at suspense via inappropriate techniques is most unfortunate when he seems more interested in scoring a coup — getting the book back into print — than he is in learning much about the author. After all, Errol Morris got Randall Adams off of death row with The Thin Blue Line. (He also made a great movie.) Not only does Moskowitz press the man's former agent fruitlessly, but he also appears to lose interest in talking to the author and wants instead to rummage around in his basement looking for contracts that can help him with the coup. But I'm probably being too hard on a mostly well-intentioned ode to a good read.