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A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation Hardcover – January 4, 2010

3.1 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A fiction writer and former editor at the New Yorker and Random House, Menaker (The Treatment) regards conversation as a human art of great importance produced by all people everywhere. His witty approach is evident almost immediately, as he speculates on the creation of human language, moving on to the general rules of conversation, London coffeehouses as a forum for ideas, greetings, and name-droppers: They wrap the pig of name-dropping in a blanket of casualness, or even criticalness, and seem to actually believe you won't taste the inner wiener. At the book's core is a conversation between Menaker and an anonymous female writer. Taped in a Brooklyn restaurant, this lengthy transcript is analyzed in detail to show how the participants take risks, seek a common ground, interject humor, and discover perceptive insights about each other. Interview tactics and prepared remarks are covered, along with e-mail embarrassments, dating stratagems, sarcastic barbs, compliments, and interruptions. However, what makes a lasting impression is the parade of anecdotes about life in the corridors of the New Yorker and Random House, leaving the reader yearning for a full-scale Menaker memoir. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

A New Yorker editor for 26 years, Menaker views conversation as artifact, tracing its prehistoric beginnings with glottological theories on physical changes in the hominid larynx and mutation of the FoxP2 gene, which helped develop brain areas conducive to language, all before hominids left Africa. He posits that conversation developed as a hands-free substitute for socially interactive grooming, as with chimps, and, moving forward, considers conversation as aimless: not without aim, but without purpose, something that Americans, more than other modern societies, have been traditionally critical of. Within the context of the persistent legacy of Puritan “sobriety and pioneer pragmatism” favoring “those who talk little and accomplish much,” he seamlessly entwines his own wryly humorous observations, dialogue from Jonathon Swift and Fred and Ginger, discussion of the chi energy of conversation, and FAQ: Frequently Arising Quandries. These last include “Insults” (subdivided into Inadvertent Affronts and Deliberate, Frontal Attack), “Prepared Remarks,” and “Dating,” which includes observations by Samuel Johnson plus notes on seduction and courtship. A charming, useful, and entertaining approach to a fascinating topic. --Whitney Scott
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve; 1 edition (January 4, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0446540021
  • ISBN-13: 978-0446540025
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,230,716 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
A stranger in an airplane sparked a conversation with me the other day. Rather than the usual awkward seatmate dialogue, we ended up having a good conversation.

He told me about his time in Iraq and playing craps in Vegas. I told him about my visit to Laos, where he would be stationed next. Although our half-hour exchange may have felt like little more than a way to pass time, we were actually discovering connections, establishing common ground, and taking on roles.

I didn't realize this until about a week later, when I read "A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation, former New Yorker editor Daniel Menaker's latest book." In his seven-chapter discourse on conversation, Menaker explains the evolution, mechanics, and benefits of human conversation. His entertaining new read offers a fresh perspective on how and why conversations play significant roles in our lives.

Inside the Book

Menaker has a tendency to elaborate and digress. He shows this habit right from the beginning, with 22 pages of opening remarks.

In his wordy, amusing style, he speculates on the origin and evolution of conversation. He makes points about the essence of conversation by referring to various social science studies. You leave those opening remarks with a clearer sense of why conversation is hard to study, what makes it unique, and where it probably came from. You also feel like Menaker has talked to you, a theme that continues throughout the book.

Next, Menaker explores the history of conversation, from Socrates to talk shows. He goes on to break down the components of a conversation, using a long transcribed conversation between himself and an acquaintance as a case study.
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Format: Hardcover
The book itself it witty and engaging. I found myself not wanting to put the book down as I was drawn into the history and discourse of talking. It may sound dull, but believe me it isn't. Each chapter has conversations that are great examples of the topic that he is trying to cover which truly allows the reader to understand the concepts at a much deeper level.

As I work in a profession that requires a lot of talking, this book was rather relevant. I run into people daily who have a lack of skill when it comes to conversing with others. I even find at times that conversation does not always come naturally, thus this book was a great find and a great read, as it makes you look at conversing with others in a different light and allows you to work step by step to build yourself into a better conversationalist as well as becomming a better person in society.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I sought practical advice like many of the other reviewers and I found some. But the book is filled with self referential writing, making for a boring read. At one point the author mentioned that he tried to find people to record for conversation but failing to find many willing volunteers records his own conversation with a friend (for two chapters of a seven chapter book). Instead of finding a sparkling example of fine conversation, we end up with whatever he could think of at the time. And that is how the book feels, like the author put his thoughts to the page without much research or consideration for the reader.
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Format: Hardcover
I was expecting a book about the mechanics of good conversation, with tips to enhance one's skill. Instead, this book starts back at the time of Socrates and works through to the present day in an attempt to give an historical look back at the origins of today's conversation. The book attempts to be witty, but comes off as trying too hard. If you're looking for a book to help you become a better conversationalist, this book is not for you. If you're looking for a story about the history and context of conversation, you might find the book interesting, but I doubt it.
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Format: Hardcover
I'll be honest, while I appreciated the humor, I had a hard time getting into this book. This author is extremely well educated and unlike little old hillbilly me, he knows lots of big words. :) I really enjoyed his chapter on FAQ's though, including tips on how to create great email correspondence, how to deal with a boring conversation, tips on changing the subject, and how to deal with insults even if you were the one who accidentally made the insult. The author does an excellent job of touching on all the skills necessary for rewarding face-to-face conversation. While it may not have been my favorite read of late, I did appreciate the insight and information the book provided.
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Format: Hardcover
There are 3 reasons this book is not worth your money:

1. The author comes off as somewhat of a blowhard (a very boastful and talkative person)
2. He records a conversation (his own of course) with a younger female writer, and tries lamely to convince the reader that the act of recording itself does not affect the speakers. Supposedly he had to use himself as the subject because he couldn't find any volunteers. Really! - couldn't find a couple of college students and pay them a few bucks? Researchers can find people to take electric shocks for cryin' out loud!
3. His basic premise--that conversation is defined as "aimless talking"--is nonsense. 95% of the things people do and say have a definite, although not always obvious, purpose. I guess he never read Freud.

Maybe because he believes premise # 3, this book offers very little practical advice. I would think knowing our purpose and the purpose of others would make us better conversationalists, and would have given him a real point to write about. Instead we get rambling and some bits of humor. There are some genuinely funny anecdotes, but you'll have to read through pages of chatter to get there. And even when the author has something clever to say, he makes sure you get it by repeating it from every conceivable angle.

His great contribution to the art of conversation is that a conversation passes through 3 stages: So we talk to a person, find something in common, and then risk disclosing something about ourselves to deepen the connection. Brilliant! Why didn't I think of that?
If the subject interests you, it may be worth a trip to the library, but don't expect much.
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