Saturday, April 29, 2006


I dipped into The New York Review of Books again, this time to read "Talking It Up" by Russell Baker, a review of Conversation: A History of a Declining Art by Stephen Miller.

I am more interested in the topic than the review itself. Baker makes some statements that I find annoying. For example,
Miller is pessimistic about the future of the conversational art in America and finds few witnesses who are not. The common explanation at the moment is the "polarized" state of our politics, which is said to be so advanced that sensible folk scarcely dare speak on any subject more arresting than food and weather for fear of igniting some human powder keg in a conversation-ending spew of rage.
I think "food and weather" can be "arresting" subjects. Baker is also dismissive of "blogs."

Miller and Baker blame the multitude and variety of electronic devices as one of the causes leading to the decline of the art of conversation. Baker goes on to point out that it requires wealth to obtain electronic devices and that, perhaps, having less money can leave one richer in conversation. After describing his memory of listening to grown-ups talking into the night during the Depression years, Baker writes,
[t]he conversation of course was affordable. It was free. Nowadays we are so rich in expensive ways to pass an evening that it may take considerable ingenuity and resolution to find anyone in the house willing to turn off the elctronic [sic] gimcracks and talk about Woodrow Wilson, or the ablative absolute, or how to dispose ethically of a broken laserjet printer.
Another part of the review laments the
decline of the love for language and phrasemaking, which used to be as common among the plain people of America as among English majors. People incapable of taking pleasure in expressing themselves are not likely to be much good at conversation.
This brought to mind my former housemate, whose memorial service I attended last week. One of my memories of her, and something that was expressed in the eulogies, was Nancy's beautiful diction and love of a well-turned phrase. It was pointed out that Nancy never used her quick wit at another's expense. However, Baker does give some examples of "brilliant insults" from the days when politicians were more articulate than they are today.

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