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Review: 'A Good Talk' by Daniel Menaker has plenty to say about good conversation

Reading about conversation might seem paradoxical: a solitary take on a social activity. But Daniel Menaker's A Good Talk evokes its subject by taking on a personal, conversational tone.

Menaker draws on a wide array of sources — from Socrates to Samuel Johnson to Deborah Tannen — to explain how conversation has evolved and how it works — or doesn't.

In keeping with his thesis that "it is you and I and other ordinary people who create the history of conversation, insofar as there is one," most of Menaker's conclusions and examples are drawn from his own life and his distinguished career as a writer and editor for such organizations as the New Yorker and Random House.

His refreshingly honest anecdotes reveal the roles and risks we take in conversation. But since most of the reported talk ranges from career advice for young writers to a claim by legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn that a certain pun "would destroy the magazine," Menaker's book might not speak much to readers uninterested in the world of East Coast literary elites.

The most useful section may be Menaker's discussion of FAQs — Frequently Arising Quandaries — such as how to survive exchanges with dull people (ask about their Top 10 books, movies, etc., or about any personal grudges) and how to recover from causing inadvertent affronts (don't over-apologize).

His comments on e-communication are spot-on. He writes that cyberspace connections "take place no place" and cautions that "an e-mail is forever. And forever forwardable and discoverable and litigable and revengeable and so on."

However, this topic demands more probing: What does such a degradation of communication mean for us as a society? And how might we avoid further regression to the grunting state of our primate ancestors?

A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conver- sation

By Daniel Menaker

Twelve, 230 pages, $20

Review: 'A Good Talk' by Daniel Menaker has plenty to say about good conversation 01/23/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 23, 2010 3:30am]
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