On an unassuming beige metal cart in the break room of an American Red Cross facility, sandwiched between the soundtrack for Mission Impossible II and, stranger, a collection of T.C. Boyle short stories (The Tortilla Curtain maybe?), Dave Barry is from Mars and Venus stood out from the other pieces of media due to its bright orange cover and pristine condition (“Very Good” I’d say, and as noted inside, a first edition). Often, the most well preserved books in a free library are also the least interesting, having arrived there unread and unwanted. I assume it was the case with this book.
Having no prior exposure to Dave Barry, I had still developed a perception of his type of writing, the type of writing attributed to a newspaper columnist and “humorist” whose popularity peaked in the 1990s—not a criticism, just an observation. Published in 1997, Dave Barry is from Mars and Venus was Barry’s sixth book of collected columns and his twenty-first book overall. The title is an obvious reference to John Gray’s oft referenced Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, but as Barry acknowledges in the introduction, the title is nonsensical, as the content of this book neither satirizes nor comments on that book at all. This is not a collection of columns with any thematic cohesion; it’s just the collection of columns he wrote following the publication of his previous volume of collected columns (Dave Barry is NOT Making This Up, for those wondering). It is 269 pages long, and most people could probably get through it in an evening. I assume he designed the essays to be easily excerpted and quoted, more akin to a series of Jay Leno monologues than a traditional book of essays. At a different time, this might have been a perfect addition to a waiting room library. One column takes about five minutes to read, and stopping in the middle doesn’t rob you of a notable punch line. Though, in the time of smartphones, even the most literary person likely has an ebook saved for the twenty minutes spent languishing at the dentist or in a Jiffy Lube.
In the publishing landscape of 2019, I struggle to understand the reading public’s insatiable appetite for volumes of mildly humorous newspaper columns. Dave Barry’s musings even spawned a sitcom on CBS called Dave’s World, starring Harry Anderson. It lasted four full seasons. Dave Barry continues to write today, but having mostly retired from newspapers in 2004, his attention has turned to writing more fiction with only the occasional book of topical observations (2014’s You Can Date Boys When You're Forty: Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topics He Knows Very Little About, for example) sprinkled in. Though quite successful, Barry’s publishing output was not unique. The film critic Pauline Kael published ten collections of her New Yorker reviews, but the works of Pauline Kael feel a bit more academic to me, a historical record of sorts. Barry’s version represented something different.
Back in the 90s and early 2000s, many newspaper columnists, especially those known for humor I guess, capitalized on their modicum of fame by republishing volumes of their collected works. Two sports oriented humorists that come to mind are Tony Kornheiser and Rick Reilly. Their books were so accessible you might have even seen them in middle school libraries (as I did). And they have much more in common with Dave Barry than Pauline Kael. These books by Barry, Reilly, and Kornheiser all gained wide distribution, were available in most airports and Walmarts for years, are virtually all still in print, and today can be purchased new on Amazon for around three dollars. This specific type of book has fallen out of popularity because its primary function (passing the time) has been usurped by a whole new wave of media and modes by which you can access that media—a perfect example of culture neither evolving nor devolving, but just changing. My only concern is that, with this change, memories of the Rock Bottom Remainders and Dave Barry Does Japan will not survive another generation. —Dusty Freund