A former book editor and New Yorker staffer weighs in on the history, strategies and significance of conversation, “a human art of great importance produced by all people everywhere.”
Menaker (The Treatment, 1998, etc.), has a busy agenda: to sketch the history of human spoken intercourse, which “had to begin with grunts”; summarize some key theories about the nature of talk; analyze an edited, though lengthy, version of a recording of an actual conversation he shared with a colleague (she knew the recorder was running); examine conversation-starters and -stoppers; and offer some Dr. Philian how-to-do-it banalities. Menaker’s wit is evident throughout, and the tone is generally amiable, even avuncular—and yes, conversational. He employs self-deprecation appealingly, and his allusions leap around unpredictably, visiting both high and low culture along the way. Accordingly, the author glances at Beethoven, Randy Travis, Aristotle, William Shawn, Buddy Holly, Grendel, Linda Blair, Gary Cooper and Max von Sydow, among dozens of others. Menaker has little ill to say of anyone, though he takes a poke at Alan Cheuse and at some unnamed people who once said something inappropriate in conversation with him. Of greatest interest are some early comments about the evolution of conversation and some observations at the end about oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” that apparently bubbles away nicely during and after a good chat. Less appealing are the author’s self-help prescriptions—lists of dos and don’ts and anecdotes about people who did X and Y ensued. Some of the sections seem more fitting for an in-flight magazine than for a serious discussion of…discussion.
A thin broth containing a few chunky morsels.