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A History of a Declining Art

Stephen Miller

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The story of the rise and fall of the art of conversation in Western civilization

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.

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.

"Why should it matter to us today what Samuel Johnson said to Hester Thrale at a dinner party on an evening in London long ago? As Stephen Miller persuasively argues in his exploration of conversation and its discontents, it matters a good deal. For the 18th century was the golden age of raillery and wit, a time when conversation was practiced as an art. . . . Miller's engaging book is a good place to begin talking about what we think conversation is and should be—over a latte, of course."—Barbara Sjoholm, Seattle Times

“[A] charming (and alarming) history of conversation…as elegantly affable as the conversationalists [Miller] admires. … And the measure of his book is that it makes one want to rush out and converse about it. Four o’clock to seven; bring your wits.” - Michael Bywater, The Independent

“In this marvelously clear and vigorous exploration of the history of conversation, Stephen Miller writes that 18th century England, with its coffeehouses and clubs, was the heyday of the art. . . . Miller says . . . conversation is one of the finest ways to form the ties of friendship. Without it, there is solitude, which leads to brooding, which leads, he warns, to fanaticism. Just what we don’t need.”—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

"[An] engaging study. . . . Drawing on research and a prodicious amount of reading, Miller traces the history of conversation from Plato's cave to the cafés of Vienna, to its nadir in reality TV, where we watch conversations—bad ones—rather than have them."—John Freeman, Newark Sunday Star-Ledger

"In its disarming fashion, Miller's book has some harsh things to say about the home of free speech. ... His proper distaste is for the calculated vulgarity of those who should know better." - Will Cohu, The Daily Telegraph

"Miller is engaging and informed on the verbal public sphere promoted by the likes of Johnson, Swift and Hume." - Brian Dillon, The Financial Times Magazine

'Miller takes us on a lightning ride through 2,500 years of attitudes towards the subject... [This] book is important in alerting us to the value of a kind of exchange too often dismissed as "having a chat".' - Alain de Botton, The Times

"In Conversation, Mr. Miller takes the reader from the Book of Job (with God as an interlocutor) and ancient Greece, to the 18-th century coffeehouses an salons of Britain and France, and then on to the era of The Jerry Springer Show. . . . [He] makes many fine points about what he sees as the current decline [in conversation]."—Moira Hodgson, Wall Street Journal


"Miller's playful, sometimes mischievously imprecise style serves the double purpose of keeping the reader entertained while displaying the very qualities that go into the making of 'good conversation.'"—Russell Baker, New York Review of Books


“[A] funny and trenchant study… The inclusions range from the Book of Job to blogs and chat rooms, with amusing digressions on everything from Spartan pederasty to Bill Clinton. … Thankfully, this entertaining study will enliven many a dinner-party discussion.” - Alexander Larman, New Statesman

“Miller is at his best in analysing the decline announced in the subtitle of his book. … [A] good third of Miller’s book is devoted to the masters…[but] Miller also explores the shadow realm of those who shun what Hume called ‘the conversible world’.” - Alberto Manguel, Times Literary Supplement

“[A] fascinating new book… [Miller] conducts a sort of grand tour of that greatest and most ephemeral of civilised human pursuits…” - Jane Shilling, The Times

"Conversation has been written about many times over the last three centuries, but just now, awash as we are in what Stephen Miller calls, ‘conversational avoidance devices,’ the subject seems refreshingly relevant."—Barton Swaim, Weekly Standard

‘This is a charming and elegiac look at what we have lost’---Ross Leckie, The Times

'This is a satisfying meander through large questions and small anecdotes from a well-read mind.'  - Claire Anderson Wheeler, Irish Times

"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

“While the book is written for the general reader, Miller packs it with historical information and readings of a wide range of authors, from Plato to Miss Manners. The result is a refreshing tour of the conversable world. In keeping with the aesthetic values of conversation, his own writing is both clear and witty.”—Tom D’Evelyn, Christian Science Monitor

Selected as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2006 by Choice Magazine
ISBN: 9780300123654
Publication Date: June 21, 2007
368 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/4