Life on the Kibitz

By Edmon J. Rodman

Published January 20, 2010, issue of January 29, 2010.
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A book about talking should seem as natural as moving your jaw, especially for a Jewish audience: people who love to comment, question and, yes, complain. Daniel Menaker’s new book, “A Good Talk — The story and Skill of Conversation” (Twelve, 2010, $20), a nicely framed approach to the art of conversation utilizing digression, humor, even impudence, is a useful kibitz on this almost proprietary Jewish subject.

Many of us, for example, become tongue-tied and brain-knotted when it comes time to initiate conversations. One way to begin, Menaker advises, is by giving compliments. Saying “ ‘What a wonderful tie!’ is fine,” he writes. “As long as a) the other person is wearing a tie, and b) it is by our standards indeed wonderful.”

He also advises how to deal with “deadly nightshade,” people who talk too much. (Many of his examples are from his 20 years as an editor at the New Yorker.) As a remedy, he suggests changing the subject, by initiating a Top 10 list — “Top 10 movies. Top 10 foods.” Most of us in the same situation are probably thinking, “Top 10 ways to disappear.”

Clearly a man who enjoys his face-to-face time (a transcribed conversation is a key talking point of the book), Menaker defines the best conversations as having an aimless undirected quality. Last Passover, he would have liked my Seder.

“Some good conversations linger,” says Menaker.

For many Americans, certain conversational topics remain taboo: religion, sex, politics, the amount of tread remaining on your tires. Though Menaker says that “most ordinary people agree that religion has a conversational cordon around it,” he also adds, “Far better would be to admit religion into the open areas of conversation.” Many readers, I think, would say, “l’chaim,” to that.


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