WIT'S END by James Geary


What Wit Is, How It Works, and Why We Need It
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A playful book that celebrates all forms of wit.

In his latest, Geary (Deputy Curator, Nieman Foundation for Journalism/Harvard Univ.; I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, 2011, etc.) discusses many of the forms wit can take. To add to the fun, he writes each chapter in a style that mimics the topic under discussion. A chapter that compares wit to fencing is a “dramatic dialogue” between philosopher Denis Diderot and literary theorist Madame de Staël, who says that, to be witty, one must have what is known in fencing as a riposte, “a quick, robust return thrust.” Another chapter, written as a scientific paper, examines “how wit might work in the brain” and includes footnotes, figures, tables, and diagrams. Geary has great fun with the many different styles: an essay written in the manner of 17th-century English playwright Joseph Addison’s Spectator essays on “the nature of wit”; a section written in jive; a poem in the form of a rap song; an art history lecture that states that “seeing is an interpretive act,” such as when one detects a human face in a rock outcropping; even a sermon. The use of different styles for each chapter is sometimes too clever for its own good, but one is likely to come away from the book convinced of many of the author’s arguments, as when he demonstrates that “puns are not wit’s lowest form but its highest expression.” Many of the anecdotes are hilarious, as when Geary notes that, after a Columbia University philosopher stated in a lecture that no language exists in which two positives make a negative, another professor muttered from the back of the hall, “Yeah, yeah.”

“To see clearly, look askance,” Geary advises. He heeds his own advice to entertaining effect.

Pub Date: Nov. 13th, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-393-25494-5
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2018


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