On any given day, everyone — even a writer like me who toils in relative solitude — engages in some sort of conversation with others. Whether we’re ordering a coffee or attending a business meeting, family, friends, strangers and colleagues present myriad opportunities to talk. Daniel Menaker sees these interactions, whether simple or complex, as forms of art. “Conversations” he states convincingly, ” definitely have noble benefits that transcend the merely pragmatic.” In short, Menaker believes that a good talk — attended to correctly — has the power to ease ills from the personal to the global.
If you imagine that A Good Talk goes on to read like some passionate lament on the increasing scarcity of such interactions and the evils of technology, you’d be wrong. While Menaker does address the encroachment of email, texting and instant messaging on good, old-fashioned face-to-face chatting, the central premise is to illuminate the parts of conversation (in his terms, survey, discovery, risks and roles) what they reveal about the participants.
To illustrate this, Menaker doesn’t settle for any single strategy — his approach is comprehensive. He taps the epistles and barstool interactions of the historically loquacious such as Socrates and Montaigne, transcribes a luncheon conversation with a younger writer, and includes a helpful and hilarious section of FAQs (Frequently Arising Quandaries) on what to do when you’ve forgotten someone’s name or are seated next to a bore, or both! He also offers a chapter on how conversation — and, more importantly, reflecting on it after the fact — produces chemical benefits inthe brain. In keeping with his theory that the accomplished conversationalist must possess three key traits: curiosity, humor and impudence, Menaker peppers the entire narrative with a liberal dose of uproarious personal anecdotes and observations.
The overall effect is as satisfying as a long talk with a particularly intelligent friend, with plenty of food for later thought. The only thing left to say? “Thank you for a lovely time Mr. Menaker. I look forward to continuing the conversation.”