Friday, May 08, 2015

Book: Conversation by Theodore Zeldin

'Conversation' by Theodore Zeldin is a wonderfully thoughtful little book about the potential value of good conversation. As an aside, it turns out Zeldin himself is very soothing to listen to, his voice harking back to a previous era. Audio files of some of Zeldin's radio broadcasts can be found here.

Here is Zeldin talking about talking:



The kind of conversation I'm interested in is the one in which you start with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person.

What matters is whether you are able to think for yourself and to say what you think.

This new conversation was like vegetarian cooking: it convinced only a minority.

Ibsen revealed how people could be transformed by their dialogue. One of his characters says, "A change has come over me, and that change has come through you, through you alone.'

Nothing is more difficult than to acquire confidence without arrogance.

The family meal is made for stopping shop talk, and for mixing different kinds of talk. Conversation has to explore new territory to become an adventure.

Everywhere, the higher you climb up the hierarchy, the more time you spend discussing. ...But the more we talk about the less we can talk about with confidence. We have nearly all of us become experts, specialised in one activity. A professor of inorganic chemistry tells me that he can't understand what the professor of organic chemistry says. An economist openly admits that 'Learning to be an economist is like learning a foreign language, in which you talk about a rational world which exists only in theory.

But creativity needs to fuelled by more than polite chat.

Some people may be happy to be a cog in a machinem but others have a different idea of what it means to be a human being. For them, the education and jobs on offer have become too narrow.

Managers start as specialists, but as soon as they show signs of ability and get to the top, they become generalists, they have to understand the world as a whole, not just their speciality. But they are amateurs at being generalists: there is nowhere you can be trained to talk about everything, to be a Renassance Person.

At a medical congress in 1866 a doctor said, 'In the past, whenever one knew that one was going to pass several hours, and sometimes several days, in the company of others, one tried to establish a rapport with one's companions, that often lasted beyond the duration of the journey. Today, we no longer think about anything but the impatiently-awaited and soon reached destination.' And the sociologist Simmel wrote, 'Before the development of buses, trains and streetcards in the nineteenth century, peopel were quite unable to look at each other for minutes of hours at a time...without talking to each other.'

The really deprived are thise who say they have no imagination, or no sense of humour, which is almost the same thing. Dostoyesky claimed that it doesn't matter what people say, only how they laugh. It's true that you cannot be free or fully human until you laugh, because to laugh means to make your own judgement, to refuse to take things at their face value, but also not to take yourself too seriously.

I particularly value conversations which are meetings on the borderline of what I understand and what I don't, with people who are different from myself.

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