Book review: Conversation: A history of a declining art

Nearly everyone loves a good conversation. So, it comes as a slight shock to find that essayist Stephen Miller, in his book Conversation: A history of a declining art, thinks that conversations are going out of style.

But perhaps that’s because his notion of a conversation doesn’t necessarily coincide with ours, or at least mine. Drawing from many literary giants spanning the past several millennia, including some of those remarkable people in history who must be taken, in various parts, to form a receipt for a heavy dragoon (especially Henry Fielding and Daniel Defoe), Miller suggests that a conversation should be a free flow of ideas without any agenda being pressed by anyone. (Sorry, but I couldn’t resist!)

Well, if he puts it that way, I guess he has a point. We rarely want to talk about anything without having any goal in mind beforehand. Let’s talk some more about that later, after discussing what’s in the book.

One issue addressed at length in this book is that of what makes a good conversation, or, perhaps, what makes a person a good conversationalist. Closely tied in with the concept of a conversation is that of politeness, according to Miller and his armada of respected writers and thinkers. A conversation must, by definition, not cause anyone offense. It may, however, involve playful taunts, or raillery, and indeed the best conversationalists are generally those who excel in this medium. But once tempers and voices become raised and people become overly excited, the conversation has ended and has been replaced by some alternative form of communication.

Miller traces the history of conversation from ancient Greece, with Socrates’s Symposium as portrayed by Plato, to the modern era. Conversation flourished best in England around the 18th century; other countries invariably did an inferior job of promoting conversations. In particular, coffeehouses in England were the places to be if one wanted to participate in the best conversations around. Or, if one preferred to avoid the riff-raff and only mix with the intellectual elites, then perhaps high-class dinner parties were good places to enjoy fine conversations.

In most of America, conversation never really got much of a footing. Visitors from England complained that Americans were only interested in making money and in spitting, and that they couldn’t be bothered to converse properly. The exception was Boston, where the quality of conversation was comparable to that of England.

In more recent times, conversation has been sharply in decline. The early causes of this were drugs and jazz. I fail to see why the latter should be detrimental to conversation, but Miller insists, and further claims that later musical genres contributed still more to its deterioration.

More recently still, technological advancement has given us further opportunities to avoid conversation. Miller makes a sharp distinction between face-to-face communication and every other type: to him, telephone or online communication are not acceptable substitutes and do not deserve the title of “conversation.” So, as a result of technology, more people are trying to communicate with each other over the internet rather than in person. And much of the talk we hear is something we cannot participate in actively: it comes through the radio or the television, so someone is talking at us, and we cannot respond easily.

While this is undoubtedly true in part, I suspect that Miller is making a much bigger deal out of this than is necessary. One need not try too hard to find people talking: when we walk through a fairly busy area, we invariably see many people talking to each other. Are they involved in conversations by Miller’s definition? I can’t tell without eavesdropping, but presumably many of them are. I suspect Miller is falling for the usual fallacy of pointing out the cultural decline in the latest generations of people, when in fact no such decline really exists.

I found the book to be informative but difficult to read, at least for a while. It’s full of scholarship and quotes and poems, and while it’s good to see a well-referenced and well-researched book, I wonder if he could have written it in a way so as to make it a little bit more fun to read. After all, this is a book about conversations; need it be so dry? I had the same feeling when reading much of this book as I did when reading musicology papers when I was an undergraduate: the information is interesting, and I learned something, but couldn’t it be written in a more entertaining style?

Once I learned to accept Miller’s style, though, I enjoyed it a bit more. It didn’t hurt that I read the last part of the book at my house in complete silence rather than at my parents’ with the inevitable family member chatter, so I was alone and could really concentrate on it. It’s not entirely Miller’s fault, then, that I didn’t like the first half of the book so much, but it is nice to read books that allow for some interruptions from time to time.

Okay, now for my thoughts on the dearth of conversations in today’s world. I think we don’t have so many conversations today because we have better and more important things to do. Miller might see this as a lamentable thing, but I don’t. There are more interesting things we can learn about than have ever been available to us in the past, and many of us would rather be educated than discuss topics about which we are poorly informed. That’s a huge improvement in my book. We’re also working more than people have in times past. This is an unverified suspicion on my part, but I suspect that most of the participants in the 18th century conversations Miller mentions were either wealthy aristocrats who didn’t work or else writers who could choose their own hours and did not spend so much time on work. I haven’t yet fully decided whether it’s preferable to have most people working a lot or just working minimally and doing nothing in particular the rest of the time; my instinct is certainly to favor the former though.

Finally, and most importantly, we no longer want to have conversations because when we talk, we actually want to say something of content! Or, we want others to say something of content. I always have goals for my discussions: I want at least one idea to be transferred from someone to someone else. Either I should learn something interesting from someone else, or someone else should learn something interesting from me. And it’s best if both of those things happen.

Sometimes, probably even most of the time, it’s a good thing if we enter into a discussion with the aim of convincing another person to share some of our views. I think that’s of the utmost importance if we care about the progress of society. How can we progress if we have to talk without trying to impart ideas to others with the aim of changing something? That just tends to lead to stagnation, which I abhor, and I hope everyone else does as well. We might be happier if we’re never seriously challenged on our beliefs and opinions, but we progress, both as individuals and as a society, if they’re regularly subjected to scrutiny.

Still, there are some aspects of conversations of times past that are appealing to me. The thought of going to a coffeeshop and talking to complete strangers about anything that happens to be brought up seems very pleasant. Sadly, I don’t know how to do that. When I go to coffeeshops, I generally see a bunch of people at their own tables typing on their laptops and maybe a handful of small groups engaged in their own discussions, and it would be awkward to attempt to join one of these. Are there any venues in which one might find such a forum for conversation? We have something similar from time to time at math department teas, but the attendees are always the same and are certainly not strangers. The weekly coffee hour we had at the College of Creative Studies was closer to what I’m after, but I don’t know where to find something similar in Palo Alto.


About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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4 Responses to Book review: Conversation: A history of a declining art

  1. Frank says:

    “Finally, and most importantly, we no longer want to have conversations because when we talk, we actually want to say something of content!”

    I agree — and yet I think this marks us both as mathematicians. My impression, after spending a lot of effort to “blend in”, is that most people don’t feel the same way.

  2. Peter says:

    Yes, Simon, it would be sweet to find a conversation venue near Stanford. I also wanted to say that I appreciate your mathematical conversation style. Have you tried cafes in San Francisco? I haven’t gone, but it feels like there just has to be somewhere.

  3. A. says:

    Bars (unfortunately?) might contain conversations. A friend of mine liked going to Tamarine on University Avenue. A lot of engineers there, he said. And the place is fairly tame, since it’s also a restaurant.

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