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Dave Wood's Book Report, April 15, 2009

'They roused him with muffins -- they roused him with ice --

They roused him with mustard and cress --

They roused him with jam and judicious advice --

They set him conundrums to guess.

When at length he sat up and was able to speak

His sad story he offered to tell:

And the Bellman cried, "Silence! Not even a shriek!"

And excitedly tingled his bell.

There was silence supreme! Not a shriek, not a scream

Scarcely even a howl or a groan,

As the man they called "Ho! Told his story of woe

In an antediluvian tone.

"My father and mother were honest though poor --"

"Skip all that!" cried the Bellman in haste.

"If it once becomes dark, there's no chance of a Snark --

We have hardly a minute to waste!'

-- Lewis Carroll, "The Hunting of the Snark"

No chance of a Snark? What's a Snark?

We first heard of a Snark in English class when we read the poem printed above. Carroll, when asked, said the Snark was a figment of his imagination, something half snail and half shark.

Today Snark has come to mean much more than that. We hear the word all the time. So and so is so snarky. What a snarkish remark, etc.

David Denby, for one, is sick of snark as we know it today at the beginning of the 21st century. And he's written diatribe about Snark and published it in a what used to be called "a slender volume," "Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal and It's Ruining our Conversation" (Simon & Schuster $15.95 cloth)

Demby, movie reviewer for the New Yorker, likes mean writing, likes invective, likes crudeness, but only if it has a point. He claims that snark is its own reward. He calls it "Schoolyard taunts without the schoolyard."

He has no quarrel with slashingly mean satirists and ironists as long as what they say leads to what he calls "civic virtue." He gives as an example John Stewart of TV's "The Daily Show," which can be really up front at times.

For instance Steward once described Karl Rove's head as looking like a big blob of unbaked bread dough. That's OK, says Denby because he believed Rove deserved it because he has never worked for civic virtue.

So what's "snarky"? Penn Jillette, according to Denby because Jillette said Obama did well during Black History Week and that Hillary Clinton would do well because coming up was "White Bitch Month." Neither remark could lead to anything, Denby says, that resembled civic virtue, only an appeal to racism and sexism.

It all has to do with content, Denby says. As his example of the snarkiest writer in America, he takes on Maureen Dowd, whom I have always thought was admirable because she was a liberal, like me.

Not so, says Denby. He says for all of Dowd's grace and cleverness and intelligence, she has no interest in politics per se, just making fun of those who pursue the political dream.

My wife and I lived in Minneapolis for 30 years. When we got there, we thought we had arrived in paradise, compared to earlier cities in our experience, like Toledo or Chicago.

Minneapolis has lost its luster as traffic has become impossible, the schools have struggled and crime is almost always on the upswing.

One thing that has remained the same is Minneapolis wonderful park system. We lived one block from the parkway and used it to walk on, bike on, picnic on.

We skied on the ice of Minnehaha creek and our jazz band played in the beautiful new Lake Harriet Pavilion. It was wonderful and still is, a tribute to its founders, men like Theodore Worth, who foresaw the glories of nature in the non-so-raw.

So I'm happy to report a new coffee table book, "City of Parks," by David C. Smith, a big coffee table tome that takes us from the park system's beginning to the present with photos galore and a very intelligent text. (University of Minnesota, $39.95)

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at (715) 426-9554.