Last spring, Wired magazine ran a mini-feature on how to make small talk. The tone was that of a pep talk, the advice poignantly remedial. The overall effect was to make the heart bleed for the presumed social ineptitude of the magazine’s tech-savvy readers.
But what if we’re all nerds now? There are those of us who worry we’ve become so immersed in technology -- in our laptops and PDAs, our e-mails and text messages -- that we no longer know how to talk with each other face to face. Or, worse, that we think it doesn’t matter.
Daniel Menaker’s winningly quixotic but amorphous new book, “A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation,” is aimed at remedying those problems. Disguised as a self-help volume, it is more truly a cri de coeur, however muffled by genre camouflage.
Menaker’s aim is not so much to instruct us in the “how” of conversation as it is to convince us of its joys and that we need -- yes, need -- to make room for it in our lives. He would like us, please, to talk with each other, and by so doing, to save the world.
“It is kind of hard to punch someone in the stomach or fire an RPG at him or burn his house down while you’re talking to him,” he writes, arguing that conversation -- using our words, as we tell toddlers to do -- is vital to humankind’s survival. And while he is not naive enough to suppose that dialogue alone will tame a hostile planet, Menaker thinks it has a positive ripple effect: “With Hume, I believe that every time people talk together in a social and mutually gratifying way, the world becomes a better place.”
“Social” is key. To Menaker, a novelist (“The Treatment”) and short-story writer who was a longtime editor at the New Yorker and then executive editor in chief of Random House, conversation is not purely practical. Rather, he explains, there is a distinct “absence of direct utility” to it. “If it is all immediate usefulness, then we call it trigonometry class or a conference call or ‘This Old House.’ ”
“A Good Talk” does include a couple of chapters in which Menaker transcribes and anatomizes a conversation he and a younger writer had over lunch, but the book is occupied more with the pleasures of one-on-one, in-person communication than it is with dispensing pointers on how to be better at it.
Even when Menaker does give advice -- as when he suggests “People One Doesn’t Speak To” as a nearly fail-safe conversational topic (and, in the process, deliciously reveals the boldface name of one writer on his own no-speak list) -- his style is that of a confabulatory provocateur. He jokes, gossips, reminisces, spins theories and tells stories, much the way he might address someone who was right there with him, face to face.
That makes psychological and aesthetic sense, and it can be highly entertaining, but there are dangers to such an approach, and “A Good Talk” doesn’t escape them.
The first, of course, is that an author is by definition a monologuist, while the reader is a silent listener. Without the feedback a live human being would give him, the qualities that likely make Menaker charming in conversation -- his humor, his impudence, his willingness to disclose things about himself -- can have the opposite effect on the page.
Oh, those anecdotes
The breeziness that accompanies this tone can be perilous too. The funny, shocking anecdote a person might get away with tossing off at a dinner party needs to be fact-checked if it’s in a book. Case in point: A story Menaker tells about a Nora Ephron article from her 1975 collection, “Crazy Salad,” appears to be directly contradicted by the piece in question.
Particularly maddening is the blithe way Menaker admits he never read “Send,” David Shipley and Will Schwalbe’s brief and invaluable 2007 guide to e-mail etiquette, then proceeds to dispense elementary advice on e-mail correspondence -- despite his contention that communicating that way, or even over the phone, does not count as conversation.
The kind of looseness that can make for enjoyable dialogue, then, doesn’t necessarily bestow the same favor on a book.
Still, Menaker may be right in calling conversation “the most civil aspect of our civilization.” We converse with each other, he writes, “so as not to be alone in the difficulties and the mystery” of life.
“A Good Talk” argues strongly for taking the time to make those connections, for our own good and for society’s, as well.
Collins-Hughes is a writer and editor in New York.