The Death of Clever

May 5, 2010

I HAD THOUGHT there was a virtue in being clever. I liked clever lyrics, clever books, clever movies, clever commercials, clever people. In fact, clever, for me, had become synonymous with good.

But here’s why clever is dying for me: it’s exclusive. It has to be, otherwise it’s just common knowledge. We look at clever people from a distance and admire how we “never would have thought or that”, or “never would have put those things together.”

The mystery of creation is what makes cleverness so captivating.

For a while I was getting brilliant spam messages. They were auto-generated and sounded like poetry. I read them start to finish, knowing that they were meaningless, knowing that some robot created them, but being thrilled by how clever they sounded. Soon, though, the novelty wore off. Now, I can’t remember a word.

Cleverness is candy. It doesn’t last longer than you have it in your mouth.

What we need, what I’m more interested, is honesty, humanity. I’m interested in people communicating rather than trying to be impressive.

I think about the quote from the introduction of the Best American Essays of 2008, “The essayists essential question is not the preacher’s or polemicist’s question—how shall we live?—but Montaigne’s question: what does it feel like to be alive?”

So that’s what I look for now, when I skim the first few pages of a book, or listen to the first few tracks of a CD: I look for honesty; I look for humanity; I look for humility. Everything else just feels like a waste of time.

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