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The Annotated Hunting of the Snark The Definitive Edition Lewis Carroll, edited with notes by Martin Gardner and an introduction by Adam Gopnik W.W. Norton: 156 pp., $27.95

October 15, 2006|Michael Sims | Michael Sims is the editor of "The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel" and wrote about Lewis Carroll in his first book, "Darwin's Orchestra."

PROBABLY no writer since Shakespeare has bequeathed posterity as many insightful images as Lewis Carroll. We talk about the looking-glass viewpoint of surrealism and the Red Queen's race of nuclear proliferation, and Carroll supplied half the paradoxical metaphors of 20th century physics. He also helped fumigate the prissiness out of children's literature. Oxford don, letter factory, anti-vivisectionist, logician, poet, novelist: Carroll exhibited the Victorian energy that nowadays shows up only in people such as his annotator.

Martin Gardner practically invented the concept of the annotated classic in 1960, with his first Carrollian labor of love, "The Annotated Alice." As versatile as Carroll and now in his 90s, Gardner has written or edited more than 100 books and has been an institution at magazines including Scientific American and Humpty Dumpty's. His "Ambidextrous Universe," about nature's mirror imagery in physics and biology, is a textbook of lucid science writing. With his midcentury collection "Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science," he launched the modern skeptical movement. Gardner's many annotated volumes include G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and even "Casey at the Bat."

To annotate a classic, you must unpack an author and an era, as well as explore the book's history between publication and now. So here's a caveat: If you sold your college lit texts upon graduation and never again uttered the word "footnote," then "The Annotated Hunting of the Snark" is not for you. Stop reading now and leave us to our dusty sport. If, however, you fell into William S. Baring-Gould's two fat volumes of annotated Sherlock Holmes stories at the age of 14 and you haven't come out yet, if you literally grin at the thought of the forthcoming annotated edition of "The Wind in the Willows," read on.

So what is this old poem about? Why, "The Hunting of the Snark" is about death, of course. No, it's about tuberculosis. Wait, it's actually a parody of the long-running trial of the Tichborne claimant, a real-life Victorian butcher claiming to be an aristocrat's son. Authorities, shall we say, disagree. To Gardner, it is the quintessential parable of existential dread. "The Annotated Snark" first came out in 1962, the era of the Cuban missile crisis, and the gloomy tone of Gardner's original introduction seems apt in a time when weapons of mass destruction have their own acronym.

In this book, the crew's names all begin with B (Bellman, Baker, Beaver) and each is featured in one of eight sections, or "fits," that form the poem. With devotion worthy of Ahab, they pursue the fabled Snark to learn its true nature, only to find.... But to describe the incidents would be fruitless, because they make sense, insofar as they make sense at all, only in context. Yet the story is irresistibly rhythmic and inventive, as in this explanation for the featureless map that guides the hunt:

"What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators,

Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?"

So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply

"They are merely conventional signs!"

Carroll brilliantly inverted this idea in another work, "Sylvie and Bruno," in which a map the size of the country it represents can't be unrolled because of its bulk -- so people just use the country as a map of itself. It is in such paradoxical invention that Carroll leaps ahead of other so-called nonsense writers. The whimsy of his contemporary, Edward Lear, is charming, but seldom insightful and never profound. Norton Juster celebrated verbal paradox in "The Phantom Tollbooth," but his story lacks the substratum of unconscious metaphor that underlies the best of Carroll's work. Perhaps only Jorge Luis Borges has ever equaled Carroll in this regard.

The new "Snark" contains a guide to online materials, a collector's bibliography of all known editions and a wonderful early parody/research paper. The cover is a beautiful color edition of Henry Holiday's design for the 1876 first edition. Display type and marginal annotations are red. Included are Holiday's original illustrations as well as many other glimpses of the era, from bathing machines to Carroll's own drawings.

To longtime fans of Gardner's Carroll, the overture by Adam Gopnik may seem redundant, but its presence confirms the classic status of the annotator himself. Gardner talks about Carroll; Gopnik talks about Gardner. "Even more than the 'Alice' books," he writes, " 'Snark' is a masterpiece that benefits from being opened up. Not explicated, or deconstructed, or explained -- simply read, and by a first-rate mind, with those readings placed in the margins of the text."

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