The bestselling author of The World in a Phrase and the deputy curator at Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism offers an exploration of wit, considering this intellectual phenomenon through the lens of psychology, folktales, visual art, literary history, and other traditions.
Wit’s End juggles scholarship, humorous anecdote and critical insight with a diabolical, almost sinister dexterity. No shrinking violet, Geary fully intends to strut his stuff, to glitter and beguile, and he does so with remarkable ingenuity and chutzpah ... the advancing text kaleidoscopes from philosophical dialogue to sermon to scholarly paper to ode to an over-the-top emulation of 1920s African American jive. The book’s designer even complements this narrative jazziness by varying the typefaces and page layouts. Geary’s intellectual reach is just as dizzying. He parses both enigmatic Buddhist koans and the put-downs used in playing the Dozens, the African American game of competitive insults ... Geary’s aim isn’t to make you laugh (or grimace), it’s to make you think. To begin with, he grants the pun a kind of foundational primacy, viewing it as the template for every sort of wit ... Geary’s scholarship, supported by 30 pages of endnotes identifying his sources, could easily be heart-sinking, if his own prose wasn’t so frisky ... Geary manages to be both [serious and witty], as one might expect from an avid juggler whose day job is working as deputy curator of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation.
Although Mr. Geary keeps returning to the subject of puns and their capacity to fold 'a double knowledge into words,' he ranges wide ... Crucially, instead of analyzing wit to death, Mr. Geary chooses to embody it. Each of his chapters is written in a particular form that wit frequently takes. One chapter is a stand-up routine ... Another is an illustrated lecture on the trompe l’oeil ... Mr. Geary writes not just playfully but also with panache ... Mr. Geary’s chief success is in conveying the power of wit to refresh the mind.
Wit’s End sometimes treats these [examples of puns] the way Freud treated dream images: as supercharged particles, burls that mark the convergence of multiple trains of thought ... Geary is a keen storyteller, promiscuous with quotes and figures. One could do worse at a cocktail party than simply opening his book at random and reading aloud ... Occasionally [Geary] falters badly: his 'Hamilton'-inspired rap contains the line 'Wit. It’s the shit. Wit. It’s so lit.' For the most part, though, the formal shifts playfully enact the notion of wit as 'improvisational intelligence that allows us to think, say, or do the right thing at the right time in the right place.'