Book Report: Elements of Wit

Elements of Wit“There you are, in a big sales meeting. The client makes a weak joke in your direction and the boss looks your way. Say something. Say anything. Well, not just anything – you need something clever but innocuous, smart enough to show your intelligence without showing off, something funny but not a joke. you don’t want to be offensive, snide or holier than thou. If this were a game of tennis, you’d simply want to keep the ball in play. At this moment, what you need is wit.” (Elements of Wit)

Title: Elements of Wit – Mastering the Art of Being Interesting

Author: Benjamin Errett

Publisher: Perigee

Publication Date: 2014

Origin: First, let me acknowledge that this is a weinery book to buy, and yes, buying a book about being interesting reeks of … I dunno … desperation or arrogance? Whatever.

OK, with that out of the way… I’m pretty certain that Elements of Wit just popped up via Amazon’s recommendation engine (which has a frightening about of knowledge on my book purchase habits). My motivation for buying it was a combination of “I’m always trying to become a better storyteller” and “Being able to engage in stimulating conversation is a useful skill” (on that note, you might want to check out Conversations, General Knowledge, and Your Career).

One can never be too interesting, after all.

Summary: Errett divides the book into three main sections that explore the conditions for wit, the reasons for wit, and some situations in which wit is a valuable tool.

The conditions for wit:

  • Hustle: acquiring content and ideas; cultural literacy and fluency is the goal
  • Flow: letting your mind and mouth take over
  • Intuition: trusting those ideas that bubble up without you knowing how
  • Confidence: self-assurance to act
  • Refreshment: gettin’ a little tipsy

The purpose of wit:

  • Righteousness: brilliant ideas need to be delivered brilliantly; “moralizing + wit = slightly less annoying than moralizing”
  • Charm: a key to social advancement
  • Romance: y’know, if you want to get into adult situations

And some ‘live events’ or situational usage:

  • Resilience: moving forward when our plans crumble
  • Compassion: using wit to make others feel better
  • Conversation: in everyday conversation, “wit is the salt on the meal”; listen and speak
  • Brevity: succinct phrasing for a Twittery world

Throughout, Errett includes a mix of classical and contemporary references, from Oscar Wilde, Oscar Levant, and Dorothy Parker to Louis C.K., Jay-Z and Lil’ Wayne; from Shakespeare to The Simpsons and Seinfeld.

Each chapter is rife with examples, and culminates with a handy, summarized list of do’s and don’ts.

My Take: I really enjoyed Elements of Wit, both for the useful guidance and for the many examples. It’s a funny book (I mean, it would’ve failed spectacularly and ironically if not), and has introduced me to some new people, characters and resources.

To my relief, it turns out I’m doing some things right: I read widely and deeply, and gin is my liquor of choice! However, if I’m to be truly witty, then I probably need to read more of the classics, to watch more movies, and to start writing down great quotes so I can put them to use in the right situation.

Read This Book If: …you want to build up your repertoire of cunning references, or you’re a robot who wants to be more human.

Notes and Quotes:

  • From the introduction, page ix“There you are, in a big sales meeting. The client makes a weak joke in your direction and the boss looks your way. Say something. Say anything. Well, not just anything – you need something clever but innocuous, smart enough to show your intelligence without showing off, something funny but not a joke. you don’t want to be offensive, snide or holier than thou. If this were a game of tennis, you’d simply want to keep the ball in play. At this moment, what you need is wit.”
  • Coincidentally, this is the second consecutive book I’ve read (after Everything Bad is Good For You) that mentions the Flynn Effect (in this case on page xvi)
  • Page xvii: “The act of creation is exactly what a sculptor does, for instance, but creative thinking is just as necessary for genetic researches and CEOs.”
  • Page xxii, while introducing the role of wit in pursuing righteousness: “Brilliant ideas need to be delivered brilliantly and wit will convince people to listen.”

“Brilliant ideas need to be delivered brilliantly and wit will convince people to listen.”

  • Ha! Also the second book in a row to cite The Simpsons; you can see this scene, described on p3, over on Frinkiac:

LENNY: Wow, I’ve never seen you have so many lunch beers before, Homer!
CARL: I concur! (They stare at this unexpected eloquence.) Word-of-the-day calendar. (He holds up an entry for “conquer.”)

  • Someone at work was telling me quite recently about the Steve Martin movie The Jerk, and here it is mentioned on page 15
  • p27: “Wit is the opposite of ironic detachment; true wit requires total engagement.”

“Wit is the opposite of ironic detachment; true wit requires total engagement.”

  • Quoting Oscar Levant, on p46: “He famously defined chutzpah as ‘that quality which enables a man who has murdered his mother and father to throw himself on the mercy of the court as an orphan.'”
  • p48: “Unlike humor, wit is a speed game. If comedy is tragedy plus time, wit is comedy minus time.”
  • This description of delivering stand-up comedy, by Steve Martin, echoes my own experiences and descriptions (see Lesson 5 and the associated footnote on this post) of delivering a high-pressure presentation, p56: “My most persistent memory of stand-up is of my mouth being in the present and my mind being in the future: the mouth speaking the line, the body delivering the gesture, while the mind looks back, observing, analyzing, judging, worrying, and then deciding when and what to say next.”
  • p60 references two great concepts: illusory superiority, and the Dunning-Kruger effect (which I intend to write about at length, at some point)
  • p61 continues the our conceptual journey, with the curse of knowledge: “Educated people often underestimate how much they know. If they know so much about the subject, surely everyone else does.”
  • p80, in the Refreshment chapter (which discusses the optimal amount of liquid courage, and apparently gin is the ideal) cautions us that: “It’s particularly important to note that stage eight, the second coming of wit, exists entirely in the mind of the subject and is most likely to start a bar fight. At no point will it results in aphorisms worth recording for posterity”
  • p95: “The difference between being right and being righteous is the difference between knowing the score and broadcasting it.”
  • …that quote above reminded me of this one from Mark Twain: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
  • p101: “If you have truth to share, it helps if people listen. To get people to listen, it helps to leaven that truth with wit. Admittedly, this is not the course chosen by many religious types. Though some have tried to tease humor out of the Bible, a rigorous review of their findings reveals that there isn’t any. Irony sure. Sarcasm, yeah. But laughs, no.”

“If you have truth to share, it helps if people listen. To get people to listen, it helps to leaven that truth with wit.”

  • p112; “Cary Grant died in 1986, and though his will didn’t specifically bequeath his charm to any one man, the general consensus is that George Clooney inherited it.”
  • Ha, love this introduction, p114: “To cast charm upon one’s audience shouldn’t require an attractive magician, just a skilled one. To test this, we need to strip away movie-star looks. We need to find a human who looks like a potato and still exudes charm. We need to talk about Boris Johnson.”
  • …and in case you’re upset by that, it continues: “To liken the mayor of London’s appearance to a common tuber is barely an insult compared to how the British press describes him on a regular basis.”
  • p116: “And herein lies the key to Johnson’s charm, wit, and enormous popularity with the voting public: He is tremendously, astonishingly well-spoken. It’s difficult to think of another public figure in modern times who can compare. When Boris Johnson talks, it’s like an expert jazz musician riffing. He finds full formed epigrams, historical references, comedic intonations, drive-by zingers and verbal jabs in the driest of subjects. He gets himself into trouble much more often than any political consultant would advise, but he either talks his way out of it or simply wins over the public because he is so obviously just being himself.”

“And herein lies the key to Johnson’s charm, wit, and enormous popularity with the voting public: He is tremendously, astonishingly well-spoken.”

  • Relating back to the lessons of the Hustle chapter, p118: “But is being Boris more than an inadvertent combination of shagginess and suavity? As Sonia Purnell, a longtime critic of the London mayor, wrote in the Observer, ‘Former staff reveal how the pauses, the non-sequiturs, the rambling tangents are studiously prepared; the most successful jokes and ‘off-the-cuff’ Boris-isms are rehearsed and recycled.’ This is quite reminiscent of Churchill’s tactics.”
  • p119: “Creative spontaneity takes practice.”

“Creative spontaneity takes practice.”

  • p128…so wonderfully topical in this U.S. election season: “For proof of this, think of Spy magazine’s famous 1980s description of Donald Trump as a ‘thick-fingered vulgarian.’ Sure, you could make fun of his hair, his opinions or his business acumen, but those are all the obvious targets. His pudgy digits, be they real or metaphorical, are much better objects of ridicule.
  • A great lesson here (own the joke) from Nora Ephron (describing her novel Heartburn), p145: “The whole point of Heartburn, the part that her career and her legacy reveals to be true, is a lesson she imparts in that same 2007 interview: ‘If you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you, but if you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, its your joke, and you’re the hero of the joke. It basically is the greatest lesson I think you can ever give anyone.’
  • p148: “When we look back at legendary figures in history, it’s hard to remember that they wouldn’t have known they were legends during most of their lifetimes. That they’d become those we now revere required a combination of talent, perseverance, luck and, most of all, resilience.”
  • Describing cruel wit, on p158 and 159: “This sort of wit, left unchecked, quickly metastasizes into something else: Snark. It’s not about spontaneous creativity; it’s about speedy meanness. Wit means assembling disparate ideas to delight; snark is just rehashing the same contempt in new ways.”
  • p171: “It’s one thing to speak well; quite another to listen well; and a third altogether to combine the two into great conversation.”

“It’s one thing to speak well; quite another to listen well; and a third altogether to combine the two into great conversation.”

  • p174, on conversations and open-ended questions: “It’s much harder than it sounds because we bring bundles of assumptions into every conversation, thinking we know the other person’s deal long before we’ve given him or her a chance to say anything. Without realizing it, we use conversations as a chance to prove our assumptions, and we do that with closed yes-or-no questions. It’s both inherently logical and a total buzzkill.”

“We bring bundles of assumptions into every conversation, thinking we know the other person’s deal long before we’ve given him or her a chance to say anything.

  • p185: “Practiced lines and hardened opinions kill conversation just as surely as listening nurtures it. If it’s to be an aimless, intellectual adventure – as it must be – lose the roadmap and follow the road.”
  • p185, quoting Rebecca Northan: “I have never had a human being sit opposite me who is boring. How you choose to live your life is not the way I choose to live my life, and why you made those different decisions is interesting. Every life is interesting.”
  • Gives me chills…this is exactly what I try to do with, for instance, press releases, video scripts, etc., from p187 (quoting Strunk and White): “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences. … This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects, but that every word tell.”

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences. … This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects, but that every word tell.”

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One comment on “Book Report: Elements of Wit
  1. […] a connection with people) reminded me of the wonderful/beautiful quote from Rebecca Northan in Elements of Wit; p260: “Curiosity is one of the most powerful ways I have found to make and sustain […]

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