Book Review: “A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation”

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.

Through Menaker’s long, bantering example, you learn about the structure of conversation. For example, most conversations come in five parts: Survey, Discovery, Risks, Roles, and the ending of the talk. Menaker describes each. You also learn different approaches to take while engaging in one. This is one of the more instructive parts of the book, but it’s embedded in a whole bunch of, well, talk.

In the fifth chapter of the book, Menaker answers some frequently asked questions on conversation. How do address boredom? What about people who suddenly insult you? What about email manners? There are some useful tips here. Chapter 6 describes the three qualities any good conversationalists must possess: Curiosity, humor, and impudence. You learn not only what they are, but how to use them.

The final chapter of the book describes how conversation benefits people emotionally and physically (oxytocin has a role here). Menaker also reflects on conversation’s political and social roles, concluding with insights on how conversations can change our lives.

My Thoughts

Because I’m reviewing this book from a business angle, let me issue a qualifier. It’s not for everyone. As a New Yorker fan, writer, and admirer of the craft of writing, I probably land on the bull’s eye of this book’s target audience. When I read Menaker’s digressions, I was also taking note of his often boundary-pushing writing style. I enjoyed his use of big words. As for his references to New York’s literary elite, I thought: I should learn who these people are.

If I’d been looking for cut-and-dried advice on how to be good at conversation, and I didn’t happen to be a literary wonk, this book would have annoyed me. But if you can relate to me, do bring A Good Talk on your vacation or on the plane. The writing flows, engages, and inspires. It made me more interested in any conversation, and made me want to have more good ones.

In a sense, the book is written like a conversation: You have to sift through the chatter to see the glint of gems. This was especially apparent in Chapters 3 and 4, which covered a painfully long conversation as a case study. I would have preferred that Menaker chunked out the conversation into short bits, then defined his points after each excerpt.

Still, if you aren’t turned off by written rambling, Menaker does offer a truly fresh perspective on conversations. His book helped me appreciate conversations as a form, not just a necessity.

I’ll conclude by saying that if you want straightforward tips, this isn’t your tome. But if you like good writing, fresh perspectives, and the New Yorker for that matter, pick this book up.

Disclosure: We received a free copy of this book.