Book Reviews · laraswanderings

Book Review: Conversation by Stephen Miller

ConversationI had been very excited about this book because I had hoped from the description of it that I could learn what good conversation past and present was like and therefore improve my own style of conversing. The preface and first chapter gave a lot of promise in that area, but as I went farther into the book I was very disappointed. I typically have avoided negative reviews, but this gives me an opportunity to talk about what good conversation is and is not.

Stephen Miller does do a survey of conversation from ancient times through what he considers the high point in 18th century Briton to present day America. The problem with his survey is that he spends the whole book quoting a very limited amount of people about their opinions on other people’s conversation and declare their opinions as normative for the culture. This is emphasized in his last couple of chapters about the decline of conversation in America by giving a great portion of his discussion to a survey of talks shows, rap stars, and talk radio as though that is the normal conversation of America. That would be the same thing as surveying various pamphlets of the 18th century and saying this is how the common person spoke. He also puts a great deal of emphasis on quoting those who felt like religion and politics were bad conversation. In fact, it seemed as though too much talk on any subject other than art, culture, literature, philosophy, and economic theory was bad conversation. Historically, this would mean only the wealthy and educated classes could possibly have good conversation, though I would call this mostly just small talk. What then does a person call the interaction of the less educated and common classes? Is small talk of one class more satisfying than small talk of another class? Is it right to take the cultural rules of interaction from one limited time period and evaluation other cultures and time periods by those same rules? Modern America is not 18th century Briton and our culture is not primarily made up of those of British decent. The subject that is most interesting to one group of people is boring to another. Should good conversation force everyone to take intense interest in those few things that were once interesting to a limited group of people?

Also, to assume that conversation online or through texting is not real conversation is creating arbitrary boundaries on what would be pleasing interactions between various people. Our modern-day digital globalization of conversation provides opportunities for great interactions that had only be available to the wealthiest and well-traveled few. The example of the teen texting or playing video games as being isolated from conversation shows that Stephen Miller knows very little of what those teens are actually doing. Studies on social media shows that the average Millennial has between 300 to 1000 facebook friends. Conversation, even on art and literature, is not uncommon online and these conversations must be classified as such because they are often live between a group of people with instant responses and the discussions last longer than a typical phone call. Forums often have lengthy conversations and regulars tend to form friendships similar to those of the 18th century coffee shops. Blogging can can’t be dismissed, as he does, as some sort of self-absorbed diary looking for fans. Many bloggers are interested in research and response to their articles. These are often for the point of facilitating conversations on specific topics. Computer gamers often are playing live games with people from all over the world and the forums have discussions on many topics such as the art and music of such games. Should the physical presence of one friend with another be a prerequisite of satisfying conversation?

I do agree with his assertions that good conversation should not be characterized by anger, narcissism, or monologues which is often the case in many times and places (as he points out himself). I do agree that it is best to have a good sense of humor and not to take everything so personally or allow a discussion to get too heated. I may not have a doctorate in this subject, but to say that the art of conversation is declining in any time period or culture, one would have to prove that speaking and exchanging of ideas in general is discouraged in that culture. Stephen Miller points this out himself, but glosses by it. He quickly tries to show this by the old American movies of tough guys who don’t say much such as John Wayne movies, or Humphrey Bogart films. What about the quick-witted films of the same time period such as “My Girl Friday” with Cary Grant or the play and the film “12 Angry Men” in which the whole thing takes place in one room and is just a long conversation. There are many American films of that era filled with good conversation and this line of arguing his point just shows his dismissal of online media for TV media as proof of his point.

Overall, this book covered a very interesting subject for me and it’s scope was appropriate. It’s failing, in my opinion, was in his lazy manner of covering his material in an intellectually honest and thorough way.


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