Conversation: A History of a Declining Art

Article excerpt

Stephen Miller. Conversation: A History of a Declining Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

In this book, essayist Stephen Miller pursues a lifelong interest in conversation, discussing why good conversation matters and why it is in decline.

Miller takes an historical and philosophical view of the subject, chronicling the art of conversation in Western civilization from its beginnings in ancient Greece to its apex in the coffeehouses and clubs of eighteenth-century Britain. Turning to America, Miller discusses Ben Franklin's interest in conversation, but Franklin, he argues was in this respect not a typical American. Many foreign observers, including Mrs. Trollope, Dickens, and Tocqueville, noted that most American men had little interest in conversation.

Miller argues that in the United States, conversation has been seen mainly as an instrument for getting ahead. (He offers the popularity of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People as some evidence for this supposition.) But for Miller and the great writers on conversation - from Swift to Virginia Woolf - conversation is its own reward.

In his concluding chapters, Miller discusses why conversation in America has declined even further in the last three decades. …

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