Wit’s End World* Tour

The Wit’s End World* Tour is winding down, but here’s a little visual retrospective of the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met. My thanks to all the booksellers, bookshops, festivals, and organizers of these events—and especially to everyone who turned out to talk about wit.

(* By ‘World’, of course I mean the United States of America…)

I’ll be adding new dates to the Events section of my homepage as they are booked. In the meantime, I’ll be taking a turn on stage here…

Sun Valley Writers’ Conference
July 17-21, 2020
Sun Valley, ID
Cancelled

Tattered Cover Book Store
February 21, 2020
Denver, CO

I was on BBC Radio 4’s Word of Mouth, hosted by Michael Rosen, on January 7, 2020, talking about metaphor… You can listen to the program here

Wit’s End World* Tour 2018-2019

Powell’s City of Books
December 3, 2019
Portland, OR

Juggling practice at Powell’s

House of Speakeasy: Seriously Entertaining
@ Joe’s Pub in the Public Theater
November 12, 21019
New York, NY

You can listen to my House of Speakeasy talk here.

You can read my Seriously Questioning Q&A here.

Wisconsin Book Festival
October 19th, 2019
Madison, WI

Iowa City Book Festival
October 3-5, 2019
Iowa City, IA

My aphorism writing workshop at the University of Iowa
Sunset above Iowa City, IA

Harbor Springs Festival of the Book
September 27-28, 2019
Harbor Springs, MI

Groucho Marx makes a surprise appearance at the Harbor Springs Festival of the Book
From left: Cathleen Schine, me, Mary Norris, and moderator Dianna Behl

Decatur Book Festival
August 30-September 1, 2019
Decatur, GA

With my fellow panelist, neuroscientist Laura Otis

Read Laura Otis’s piece on the dangers of the “let it go” metaphor here.

Chautauqua Institution
July 31, 2019
Chautauqua, NY

You can see the video of my Chautauqua Institution lecture here. Check out these pieces from the Chautauqua Daily, James Geary Juggles Defining Elements of Wit & Humor (July 31, 2019) and James Geary to Examine Power of Wittiness in Humor & Humanity (July 30, 2019)

Bookstock
July 26, 2019
Woodstock, VT

Printers Row Lit Fest
June 8, 2019
Chicago, IL

The festive outdoor venue for my Printers Row talk

Porter Square Books
25 White St, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Jan 18, Friday – 7:00 – 8:30 PM

Politics and Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington DC
Jan 5, Saturday – 6:00 – 7:30 PM

 

Watch the video of my Politics and Prose gig here.

Brookline Booksmith
279 Harvard St, Brookline, Massachusetts
November 28, Wednesday – 7:00 – 8:30 PM

The Half King
505 W 23rd St, New York, NY
November 19, Monday – 7:00 – 8:30 PM

Spoonbill & Sugartown
99 Montrose Ave, Brooklyn, NY
November 18, Sunday – 7:00 – 9:00 PM

Head House Books
619 South 2nd St, Philadelphia, PA
November 16, Friday – 7:30 PM

Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA
November 14, Wednesday – 7:00 – 8:30 PM

Northshire Bookstore
4869 Main St, Manchester, VT
November 10, Saturday – 6:00 – 7:30 PM

Concord Bookshop
65 Main St, Concord, MA
November 8, Thursday – 7:00 – 8:30 PM

Authors on Stage
Wellesley College Club
727 Washington Street, Wellesley, MA
November 07, Wednesday – 10:00 – 11:30 AM

Wit’s End

My new book—Wit’s End: What Wit Is, How It Works, and Why We Need It—is out on Nov. 13.

The book, of course, makes the perfect holiday gift for that special (please select one)

A) wit
B) nitwit
C) dimwit
D) half-wit

in your life. You can pre-order at Amazon, B&N or Indiebound.

But Wit’s End live is a lot of fun, too. If you want to discover how wit can entertain and enlighten even in the darkest times, come on by one of the appearances listed below.

I’ll explore key aspects of wit through film clips, folktales, literary anecdotes, jokes, and juggling—of ideas, words and balls. There will be word games, short creativity tests, and a pun competition, the winner of which receives a free copy of the book!

For a teaser of the event (and the book), check out this short video.

Thank you!

Authors on Stage
Wellesley College Club
727 Washington Street, Wellesley, MA
November 07, Wednesday – 10:00 – 11:30 AM

Concord Bookshop
65 Main St, Concord, MA
November 8, Thursday – 7:00 – 8:30 PM

Northshire Bookstore
4869 Main St, Manchester, VT
November 10, Saturday – 6:00 – 7:30 PM

Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA
November 14, Wednesday – 7:00 – 8:30 PM

Head House Books
619 South 2nd St, Philadelphia, PA
November 16, Friday – 7:30 PM

Spoonbill & Sugartown
99 Montrose Ave, Brooklyn, NY
November 18, Sunday – 7:00 – 9:00 PM

The Half King
505 W 23rd St, New York, NY
November 19, Monday – 7:00 – 8:30 PM

Brookline Booksmith
279 Harvard St, Brookline, Massachusetts
November 28, Wednesday – 7:00 – 8:30 PM

Politics and Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington DC
Jan 5, Saturday – 6:00 – 7:30 PM

Porter Square Books
25 White St, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Jan 18, Friday – 7:00 – 8:30 PM

Aphorisms by Simon Constam

Attending a reading by Terrance Hayes at the Harvard Book Store the other day, I happened to sit next to Simon Constam. We happened to get to talking, and we happened to discover that we both write and read aphorisms. As Simon said, “the odds are astronomical against two people interested in aphorisms just happening to sit down beside each other.” So here, against the odds, is a selection of some of the aphorisms Simon subsequently shared with me, drawn from his manuscript-in-progress…

Exile is, like everything else, too much of a good thing.

Night after night all the things that do not change / Are startled by the changes that light brings.

Eventually you ignore the traffic, even the sirens, even the disturbances in the apartment next door. The classical guitarist cannot hear the squeaking of the strings.

Uncertainty disappears into habit.

Go and see what you don’t know is there.

Strength is the ability to forgive oneself for weakness.

When A Pear Is A Pair

Ambiguous figures and visual puns have long been a source of popular entertainment. In 1830s England, publishers came up with a printing technique that allowed them to create illustrations with double meanings. One view is seen when the image is illuminated from the front and a different view is seen when the image is illuminated from the back. During the same visit to Boston’s MFA at which I encountered Ian Hunter and M.C. Escher, I also came across The Pear, published around 1840 by T. Dawson, in which the pear/pair pun is charmingly visualized…

Visual puns like these are related to anamorphoses, images or projections whose full aspect can only be taken in from a single vantage point. Swiss artist Markus Raetz makes amusing anamorphoses, which you can see in this video of Yes-No (2003), a sculpture that displays the words “yes” or “no” depending on the position of the viewer.

 

Visual Wit and Ambiguous Figures

At the Boston MFA a few weeks back, I was delighted to discover some Mott the Hoople and Ian Hunter album covers—as well as an explanatory note from Ian Hunter himself—among the works in the show about M.C. Escher.

Hunter is an Escher fan and used images from his works for the first Mott album and his initial solo effort. Escher used ambiguity to create works of great visual wit; he was a master of the ‘ambiguous figure,’ an image that embodies a kind of visual paradox or that can be seen as two different things depending on the perspective of the viewer. (Ian Hunter himself is no slouch when it comes to wit. One of my favorite lyrics by him: “You’d be a ruin if looks could kill” from 23A Swan Hill.)

One of the most familiar ambiguous figures is a duck-rabbit illustration, which invites two distinct perceptions, both of which are correct but only one of which can be seen at a time. When seen as a rabbit, the face is turned to the right, with the long ears streaming out behind. When seen as a duck, the face is turned to the left, with the ears transformed into a half-opened bill. Other famous ambiguous figures include the shape of a vase created by faces gazing at one another, or a young lady coyly turned from the viewer who is also a hunched, craggy old woman.

There are also more recent ambiguous figures. In 1956, British psychiatrist Lionel Penrose collaborated with his mathematician son, Roger, to create the “Penrose stairs,” which seem to be ascending and descending simultaneously. Escher created a similar effect in Waterfall, made in 1961, in which a stream feeding a waterwheel and waterfall seems to be flowing upward and downward at the same time.

What is witty about ambiguous figures is that they force the viewer to do a double take, to think two different things while looking at a single image. In this sense they are like visual puns, which are used all the time in advertisements—because it’s a quick, efficient way to arrest a person’s attention.

An excellent visual pun can be found in this Land Rover advertisement, depicting two hippos up to their nostrils in a muddy water hole, with the car-maker’s Freelander model driving up behind them, its headlights and side-view mirrors echoing the shape of the hippos’ eyes and ears.

Which reminds me of another pun… What do you call a semi-aquatic mammal noted for its insincerity? A hippocrite.

Aphorisms by David Lazar

Delighted to welcome back Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the ursprache blog and author of the aphoristically amazing Tramp Freighter, to ‘All Aphorisms, All the Time’ with this guest post…

I would not skip the essays in David Lazar’s I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays & Aphorisms (University of Nebraska Press, 2017). They’re great reading. But allow me to comment only on the last section of the book, the aphorisms.

They’re divided into two sections, “Rock, Paper, Scissors, God” and “Mothers, Etc.”  Let me start with the latter section, comprised of psychologically intense bursts of language. For example, “She had heard that blood was good for the skin, that Mother.” These short entries operate more like jagged fragments excerpted from a dark tale than as what we conventionally might term aphorisms. Of course, in the aphorism now, just as in poetry, anything is permitted, as the late Nicanor Parra says, “as long as you improve on the blank page.”

The ‘mother’ character of these aphoristic utterances hovers in a space between archetype and an actual person, which commends both their universality and their immediacy: ‘You can get addicted to a Mother, even if she isn’t your own.” It would be remiss not to mention the images of Heather Frise that disturb, in a good way, the pages of “Mothers, Etc.” Often sexually-charged and visually punning, one might say Frise’s images are Freudian slips between what Lazar has spoken.

Turning back to the first section, with its neat title, “Rock, Paper, Scissors, God,” we find a group of aphorisms that operate more in the vein of what we conventionally think of as aphorisms: “If my closets are full, where do I keep the skeletons?”

Walking is a theme Lazar works: “Is walking a form of public transportation?”

Even in this section Lazar’s aphorisms seem to be short stories distilled to one, maybe two lines; stories with a twist or coming at things from an oblique angle. Lazar sees the world differently: “The bliss in opening the door and finding no one there.” Or, “Even if you break your mirror and throw away most of the pieces, you can still see your eye, your fingers.”

A few more samples from David Lazar’s book…

From “Rock, Paper, Scissors, God”

When asked for my street address, I say, “I’m standing right here.”

There is nothing better than coming home, except for leaving home and staying away from home.

Our family crest was a nest of vipers.

Unless you write your epitaph, you never get the last word.

From “Mothers, Etc.”

Sometimes, out of nowhere, a Mother will love herself in a darkly consoling way.

Mothers freeze-dry our tears and sell them on the black market.

The Mother couldn’t help holding what she carried.

Mothers of Mothers know about places even all the other Mothers don’t know about.

Even More Aphorisms by Steven Carter

You may recall Steven Carter from earlier postings about his aphorisms, his parables and his oxymorons. He’s now published his Collected Aphorisms 2008-2018, which brings together a decade of mordant musings on art, life and everything in-between. The cover of Collected Aphorisms shows a picture of the ceiling beams in what was the library in the tower at Montaigne’s chateau in Dordogne, France. Montaigne had the beams inscribed with some of his favorite aphorisms from the Bible and by classical authors. Literally in the case of Montaigne’s library, and metaphorically in the case of this and other collections, aphorisms give us something to look up to. A selection from Steven Carter’s latest…

Much can be tolerated by condemning it.

People’s doubts reveal more about their spiritual strength than their beliefs.

Philosophy governs with the period, science with the exclamation point, literature with the question mark.

It’s easier not to be a phony than to be one.

Art is superfluous—which is precisely why it’s necessary.

A promise is like that fragile item in a glass shop—in reverse. If you break it, it owns you.

Aphorisms by Jack Mitchell

François de la Rochefoucauld (Geary’s Guide, pp. 131–134) cast a cynical, clinical eye on human vanity and personal weakness. Jack Mitchell, associate professor, Roman history at Dalhousie University, translates—literally and figuratively—the Duc’s devastating aphoristic observations for contemporary readers. The literal translation comes in Reflections, or Moral Opinions and Maxims: A Bilingual Edition, Mitchell’s rendering of Rochefoucauld’s Maxims in English; the figurative translation comes in D, or 500 Maxims, Aphorisms, & Reflections, Mitchell’s own aphorisms, which parallel the themes of the Duc’s rueful exploration of the human psyche. The books refresh Rochefoucauld’s voice and add Mitchell’s own to the grand tradition of the moral aphorism. A selection from Mitchell’s sayings…

The apocalypse is the easy way out.

Misers live for a moment that never arrives.

The wise suffer from an excess of moderation.

Life would not seem so short if we could remember it.

A reader’s library is his only true biography.

Sketches are the aphorism of the hand.

Only the studious discover what is not worth learning.

To learn, read; to know, reread.

 

More Aphorisms by Laurence Musgrove

I wrote about Laurence Musgrove—professor of, among other things, rhetoric and composition, creative writing (poetry), and visual thinking at Angelo State University in Texas—back in 2013, in connection with his witty, illustrated alter-ego, Tex. But behind every great wisecracking cartoon character is an animated human aphorist, and Musgrove is the source of memorable maxims even when they are not appearing in speech bubbles above Tex’s head. In his recent collection—One Kind of Recording: Aphorisms—he writes, “aphorists whittle sentences to a point.” Musgrove’s sentences are pointed and often poignant observations about life’s many inconspicuous yet decisive moments. A selection…

The signposts
to your life
are just up ahead
but mostly
behind you.

The more things you know
the more things remind you
of other things you know.

The best seat in the house
is sometimes outside.

From the bandwagon
it’s hard to see
everyone
you’re running over.

Take it or leave it
usually means take it.

The only way
to get anywhere
is to leave.

Age is when
the temporary
becomes permanent.

Close friends
know how to
keep their distance.

Apology admits
it should have
spoken up sooner.

Our lives depend
on those who
depend on us.

The aphorism
is a song
we’ve never heard
but recognize.