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Conversation The Most Delightful Activity Of Our Lives

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Message Steve Denning
The virtue of good books is the ability to bring a single intelligence to bear on a subject, with clarity, coherence and insight so that the reader's understanding is raised to a new level. Based on careful research and attention to detail, books at their best can illuminate a domain in ways unlike anything else that the human mind has been able to devise. Books provide us with substantial intellectual substance.

We gain access to the finest minds not only of our time, but of all time. Through books, we inhabit the thoughts of Homer, Dante, Molière and Shakespeare. Once we have discovered a good book, we can keep it with us and reread it with the same kind of pleasure that we have in meeting an old friend. Although most books are not very entertaining, let alone exciting, good books endure and provide us continuing solace and enlightenment.

The virtues of conversation are more ephemeral and diverse. Good conversation brings multiple intelligences to bear on a subject. Montaigne held it to be "the most delightful activity in our lives," compared to which, "studying books has a languid feeble motion." Good conversation is spirited, informed, lively, funny, open-ended, often heading in unexpected directions, and covering unanticipated subjects. While books might be considered the main course of a meal for the intellect, conversation is the dessert. As a spoken activity, conversation is inherently fleeting. Once the conversation is over, there is no way of recovering it or reliving it, unless it happens to have been recorded - something that has only been possible in the last century or so. Until recently, great conversations could only be recreated, and one suspects that much of the charm was lost in the process. We can only surmise what the greatest conversations in history might have been like.

In picking up a book on conversation, one is always hopeful of having the best of both worlds - something that has the clarity, coherence and substance of a book, along with the charm and liveliness of a conversation. The risk is that a book on conversation will have neither. On the one hand, it may lack the clarity and coherence of a good book, because the author has difficulty getting a grip on a subject as ephemeral and effervescent as conversation, while at the same time, reflecting the "languid feeble motion" that we know so well in single-author texts.

The latest arrival in the category - Conversation by Stephen Miller - reflects both these risks.

In some ways, Miller's book is modeled on conversation. He doesn't attempt to present the subject of conversation in coherent, consistent fashion, but rather dabbles in his subject, taking a little bit from here and a little bit from there, dawdling over certain parts of his subject at tediously frustrating length, and going off on tangents, while skipping over crucial issues in an alarmingly cavalier fashion.

It is not obvious for instance that Miller is clear in his own mind what conversation and what it isn't. There are flashes of insight, but nothing consistent.

Thus Miller at times never really makes up his mind whether conversation includes argument or not. He cites Swift saying that argument is "the worst form of conversation" and Oliver Wendell Holmes: "I will tell you what I have found spoil more good talks than anything else; - long arguments on special points between people who differ on the fundamental principles upon which these points depend."

Yet Miller classifies all of the Socratic dialogues by Plato as conversations, never pausing to ask himself why the Symposium is such a charming, delightful and engaging piece of work, while other Platonic dialogues are so tedious and plodding.

The Symposium has all the features of a good conversation. It has diverse points of view. It is rich in good-natured badinage. Above all, it is a sequence of narratives presented by successive speakers, each of which adds depth and substance to the discussion. It never descends into an abstract argument about its ostensible subject (the meaning of love). Instead, successive narratives illustrate and embody various dimensions of love. The viewpoint of Socrates is presented forcefully, but it is still only one viewpoint among many.

By contrast, many of the other Platonic dialogues represent Socrates in his interrogation mode. They show Socrates, pretending to know nothing, like Peter Falk in the TV program Columbo, but in practice bearing down on his interlocutor with the zealotry of a prosecutor, often using specious arguments to make his debating points, and all with the object of leaving the poor victim who is being interrogated in a supposed puddle of confusion and befuddlement.

Why are these other Platonic dialogues arguments, not conversations? There are several reasons. First, we are offered a single viewpoint, not the multiple viewpoints of conversation. Second, one of the participants - Socrates - exhibits that kind of single-minded desire to destroy his interlocutor that is so deadly to conversation. Third and most important, there is none of the open-minded exchange of narratives that is the hallmark of good conversation.

Miller does make some good points. He dwells for instance on the importance of raillery in conversation. The finest conversations surely contain a good dose of amusing satirical banter. Certainly this is one of the charms of Plato's Symposium. But is raillery an essential element of conversation? Miller never maintains a consistent position. throughout the book.

Miller is also on target when he suggests conversations are only possible between equals: where one of the participants has hierarchical authority over the others, there may be talk, but it will lack the spirited and open-endedness of conversation.

But much of Miller's book is devoted not to conversation but to accounts of 18th Century English coffee shops. Miller suggests that this is where many of the great conversations of all time took place. But what was their content? What was their nature? Miller can only guess. So instead, he goes on at great length about tangential matters such as what particular food or drink might have been served at this or that coffee shop in 18th Century. This is apparently a subject of great interest to Miller but it has as much relevance to the subject of conversation as the menus of contemporary Starbucks.

One of the problems of the book is that Miller is not so much a conversationalist, as a man with mission. He is intent on making the case that the 18th Century English coffee shop was the golden age of conversation, and ever since things have been going downhill. What evidence does he present for this? Very little, except the opinions of 18th Century contemporaries that good conversations were taking place there. How can we know? How can we compare them with the modern conversations of which Miller speaks so disparagingly? The fact is that we can't. Miller starts from an assumption and never seriously examines whether it is valid or not. The probability is that many, if not most of the 18th Century conversations that Miller values so much were just as boring and tendentious and narrow-minded as any the modern conversations that he now criticizes.

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Stephen Denning is the author of several books on leadership and narrative, including The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass, 2007), which was selected by the Financial Times as one of the best (more...)
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