Ben Singleton

Ben Singleton.

James Geary’s “Wit’s End: What Wit Is, How It Works and Why We Need It” is a multifaceted work that explores an ill-defined but instantly recognizable subject.

Geary gives many definitions of wit, from Aristotle’s declaration of “educated insolence” to Shakespeare’s observation that it is sometimes “wise enough to play the fool/ And to do that well craves a kind of wit.” The author’s own stab is that wit is “the quick, instinctive, improvisational intelligence that allows us to think, say, or do the right thing at the right time in the right place.”

Geary’s own definition is amorphous, and he shows the shifting nature of wit by employing various styles to show that wit is more performance than dry definitions. He defends puns, pens a dialogue featuring a chagrined Denis Diderot, deconstructs well-known jokes and presents a chapter as a scientific paper that delves into the neurological basis of humor.

The most interesting part of “Wits End” is where Geary takes a turn to show wit within visual art. Most people think of wit as primarily verbal and in some cases communal and competitive — the sparing in the Diderot chapter between the philosopher and the woman of letters Madame de Stael is an example of the kind of wit we think of. But in the art chapter, Geary points out that “seeing double is one of the signature techniques of visual wit,” similar to verbal puns that “require readers to juggle double meanings.” Many people are familiar with the famous image of what is sometimes taken to be a duck and at other times a rabbit. Geary uses this ambiguous figure to show visual wit at work.

The tone of “Wit’s End” isn’t dry or academic, but quite playful. Geary does, however, draw from many sources of inspiration to show wit at work. Whether readers will become wittier after reading this book is unknown, but “Wit’s End” won’t drive them to their wit’s end.

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