Book Review: Elements Of Wit

Elements Of Wit: Mastering The Art Of Being Interesting, by Benjamin Errett

One of the interesting aspects of this book is that it was about something else than it originally seemed to be the case. This is a book that promises the reader that it will be a self-help book on how to be more witty. A great many people long to toss witty comments on Twitter or at dinner parties and think that this book will make them better at it, while in reality this book is about something far more interesting and far more profound than being merely a guide to how to sound more intelligent when one is eating and drinking and conversing with others. This is about that is not just about how to be more witty, but it looks at wit as something that suffers in our contemporary cultural climate and also is something that the past knew something about. And even more to the point, the book is about how it is that the elements of wit became labeled under a different name when wit itself fell into disrepute so people studied the same things that used to be categorized and praised as wit by looking at the study of creativity. This is a genius move and it certainly helps the reader to be better aware of what is going on when it comes to how words are used and how it is that the same thing is often called by different names based on what is acceptable in a given place and time.

This book is a bit more than 200 pages and it is divided into twelve chapters about different aspects and facets of wit. The author begins with an introduction that comments on wit as an endangered quality in the contemporary world. This is then followed by a discussion of how wit depends on both hustle (1) and flow (2), and that a great deal of contemporary battle rap and its approaches is closely related to the idea of wit and how it requires hard work and preparation but also has to come in the moment. After this comes a look at how wit is fostered by intuition (3), bubbling under the surface, as well as by confidence that what one says is going to be appreciated by others (4). This is followed by a discussion of wit as being founded on a sense of refreshing honesty (5) as well as a sense of righteousness (6) about the sins that are overlooked in a given place and time. After this comes a look at how wit is accompanied by charm (7), how it aides one in the search for romance (8), as well as how it is an element of resilience in a difficult and harsh world (9). After this the author explores the relationship of wit and compassion (10), as well as wit’s use in conversation (11) and its quality of brevity (12). This leaves the author to his conclusion about the goal of wit, as well as acknowledgements, references, and an index.

One of the achievements of this book is that it makes being witty into something that is associated with kindness more than cruelty. Wit is, like anything else that human beings can have, something that can be used for good as well as evil, and is frequently used for both. But the common understanding of wit is that it is cruel and mean-spirited creative speech, and so this author emphasizes the kinder side of wit, and the focus of wit on truth, especially truth that cuts against the grain of popular cant and folly. People who are witty are those who are able to have striking and original perspectives on what goes on around them and are frequently alert and aware of others. To prepare mean-spirited but funny things ahead of time is not wit, the author notes, and he wrestles with the tension between wit in the moment as in someone who is a sparkling and entertaining conversation partner at dinner and wit in the aftermath that writers often possess, giving the reader a thoughtful look at the history of wit and how it is that it can be reclaimed from its contemporary obscurity. As someone who enjoys wit and (hopefully) has a fair bit of it, I support this message.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, On Creativity and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: Elements Of Wit

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    I like the point that you make regarding this author’s distinction between witty insults and impersonal witticisms–the latter of which I truly enjoy as a measure of real intelligence. I love hearing people who can view the ordinary everyday things in a uniquely comical, absurd way. Humor should be found in them. However, people have a hard enough time with their struggles without having to deal with others sniping and laughing at them, regardless of how “witty” they are.

    • Yes, I too appreciate wit and intelligence, but not when it is unkindly given. Life is a struggle for us all, and those who add to burdens with unkindness are not treasured as much as those who can take a relatable situation and view the funny or ridiculous side of it.

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