Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Is anyone tired of hearing their co-workers talk about the Da Vinci Code movie yet? A large number of the people where I work saw it over the weekend and they were all raving about how good it was. And then of course the conversation swings round to who has read the book. When someone said she thought the character development in the novel was amazing I almost choked. I must admit I have not read the book, nor do I plan to, and I don't want anyone who has read it to think I am making fun of them or the book, but good character development is not something that usually ends up in the same sentence with Dan Brown or Da Vinci Code. I kept my mouth shut for fear of making a smart-alecky remark that would get me into trouble. This brings me (oh so cleverly) to Conversation: A History of a Declining Art by Stephen Miller. I have not read this book either, but I recently read a review of it in the New York Review of Books from May 11th (I am very behind in my non-book reading) and it is unfortunately not online. The book sounds interesting, not because I necessarily agree with the author, but because I think it is an interesting topic of conversation. I've always been fascinated by people who are good conversationalists. I am one of those people who think of all kinds of witty and intelligent things to say after I have left the party. I am also shy in groups larger than four or five and with people I don't know very well. This does not, however, keep me from having romantic dinner party fantasies with twelve people dressed up and sitting down to an exquisitely prepared (by the cook, there has to be a cook!) five course (vegan) meal served by one or two maids who also do the dishes afterwards. This would be one of those meals that goes on for a couple of hours and everyone is talking and saying such smart things. Is it evident I have read too many 18th and 19th century novels? Part of what I love about Pride and Prejudice is the conversation. From the first time I read the book as a teenager I longed to be Elizabeth Bennett, not because she gets to marry Mr. Darcy, which admittedly is pretty cool, but because she is so good at talking. Russell Baker is the reviewer of Conversation and he writes:

Many factors unrelated to political fury are working to stop conversation, and some of them go very deep. One is the decline of the love for language and phrasemaking, which used to be as common among the plain people of America as among English majors. People incapable of taking pleasure in expressing themselves are not likely to be much good at conversation.
I'd also like to suggest that people have not been taught the art of conversation. Sitting around at a family gathering and gossiping about this aunt or that cousin or meeting a few friends for coffee and catching up with each other's lives is very different from the concept of conversation that Miller and Russell are talking about. If you haven't grown up listening to conversations, where do you learn it? I am curious to peruse the book and find out if Miller is doom and gloom or if he offers any kind of insight or suggestions on why it would be worthwhile and how one can go about improving one's skills in the art of conversation. It will be a bit of time before I get my hands on the book though. My library has only one copy, it's checked out until June 10th and there are already two holds on it. Maybe Minneapolis is about to have a conversation renaissance!