Conversation: A History of a Declining Art

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Overview


Essayist Stephen Miller pursues a lifelong interest in conversation by taking an historical and philosophical view of the subject. He chronicles the art of conversation in Western civilization from its beginnings in ancient Greece to its apex in eighteenth-century Britain to its current endangered state in America. As Harry G. Frankfurt brought wide attention to the art of bullshit in his recent bestselling On Bullshit, so Miller now brings the art of conversation into the ...
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Conversation: A History of a Declining Art

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Overview


Essayist Stephen Miller pursues a lifelong interest in conversation by taking an historical and philosophical view of the subject. He chronicles the art of conversation in Western civilization from its beginnings in ancient Greece to its apex in eighteenth-century Britain to its current endangered state in America. As Harry G. Frankfurt brought wide attention to the art of bullshit in his recent bestselling On Bullshit, so Miller now brings the art of conversation into the light, revealing why good conversation matters and why it is in decline.
Miller explores the conversation about conversation among such great writers as Cicero, Montaigne, Swift, Defoe, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Virginia Woolf. He focuses on the world of British coffeehouses and clubs in “The Age of Conversation” and examines how this era ended. Turning his attention to the United States, the author traces a prolonged decline in the theory and practice of conversation from Benjamin Franklin through Hemingway to Dick Cheney. He cites our technology (iPods, cell phones, and video games) and our insistence on unguarded forthrightness as well as our fear of being judgmental as powerful forces that are likely to diminish the art of conversation.
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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
Miller traces the history of conversation from Aristotle to the present day, focussing particularly on the eighteenth century. For him, the Paris salons where Diderot opined and the London coffeehouses where Dr. Johnson imbibed between aphorisms represent conversation’s apogee. In America, he feels, it fared less well, even before the contemporary menace posed by the Internet, iPods, and the polarization of the political sphere. Thoreau dismissed conversation as a waste of time, and Melville thought it was a tool of con men. Miller defines conversation as the act of speaking with others without any objective other than enjoyment and exchange, and there is something conversational about his own style, which tends toward anecdote and ignores theoretical approaches that could have enriched his argument.
Harold Bloom

"In the sublime mode of David Hume and Dr. Samuel Johnson, Stephen Miller gives us a celebration and elegy for the art of conversation. His work at once enlightens and saddens me, twin effects that fuse into one, for it is clear we can no longer inhabit a conversable world."—Harold Bloom
Christian Science Monitor - Tom D'Evelyn
“In keeping with the aesthetic values of conversation, [Miller’s] own writing is both clear and witty.”—Tom D’Evelyn, Christian Science Monitor
Los Angeles Times - Susan Salter Reynolds
"[A] marvelously clear and vigorous exploration of the history of conversation. . .”—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300123654
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 1,022,009
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author


Stephen Miller is a freelance writer and a contributing editor to The Wilson Quarterly. His essays on leading eighteenth-century writers have appeared in many magazines, including the Times Literary Supplement, Partisan Review, and Sewanee Review.
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Table of Contents

1 Conversation and its discontents 1
2 Ancient conversation : from the Book of Job to Plato's Symposium 29
3 Three factors affecting conversation : religion, commerce, women 53
4 The age of conversation : eighteenth-century Britain 79
5 Samuel Johnson : a conversational triumph; Lady Mary Wortley Montagu : conversation lost 119
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