British journalist Catherine Blyth’s book is premised on the idea that our interest in technology has caused us to neglect personal communication and, in doing so, we have forgotten how to converse properly with one another. This is a fascinating topic and would merit a book-length discussion on its own. However, The Art of Conversation is, as the subtitle hints, a self-help book which focuses on how to refurbish those neglected conversational skills. Readers expecting a sociological treatise will be disappointed, as the interesting nuggets of information are scattered throughout the advice portions of the book. Other promising sociological angles, such as Blyth’s observation that conversation is the ultimate anti-consumerist activity because it is free, remain sadly unexplored.
Unfortunately, even as an advice book or instruction manual, this title has a number of drawbacks and weaknesses. The book is crammed with lists, equations and subheadings which fail to confer order or accessibility to the content. Additionally, Blyth’s efforts to adopt a chatty and humourous tone sometimes result in confusing word plays that disrupt the flow of the text. By the time you figure out the pun in “monologue-asteries,” for example, the joke is no longer funny. “Window-shop-portunities” is perhaps slightly clearer. These attempts at humour are spread throughout the book, but are often insufficient to carry the dragging weight of the instructional sections.
Blyth’s book does offer readers the opportunity to consider their own conversational style and skills, and reflect on how they can improve. They may recognize some of their own bad habits in Blyth’s entertaining anecdotes or the “typology of bores, chores and other conversational beasts.” However, even the shyest wallflower or the most dedicated technophile may find much of her advice to be simple common sense.