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Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives

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Do you want better conversations with your lover, your colleagues at work, your family, friends or strangers, or yourself? Conversation explains what kind of talk charmed and excited people in the past, and why we talk differently today. It explores the art and the history of conversation and how it can be the key to a happier, more interesting future. It shows how women have changed the ways lovers speak, how families avoid silence or boredom, how your work can damage or improve the way you converse, and what role there is for the tongue-tied and shy. This book will enable you to see more clearly what you want to talk about, and what conversation can do to your life.

103 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 1998

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About the author

Theodore Zeldin

48 books179 followers
Theodore Zeldin CBE, President of the Oxford Muse Foundation, is a Palestinean philosopher, sociologist, historian, writer and public speaker. Zeldin was first known as a historian of France but is today probably most famous internationally as the author of An Intimate History of Humanity (1994), a book which probes the personal preoccupations of people in many different civilisations, both in the past and in the present; it illuminates the way emotions, curiosities, relationships and fears have evolved through the centuries, and how they might have evolved differently. Since then he has focused on how work can be made less boring and frustrating, how conversation can be less superficial, and how individuals can be more honest with one another, putting their masks aside.

Zeldin's masterpiece is "A History of French Passions" (originally published as "France, 1848-1945" in the Oxford History of Modern Europe), an idiosyncratic work examining the ambitions and frustrations, intellectual and imaginative life, tastes and prejudices of a vast range of people. The idea of France as a common unity is not easily discernible in this multi-volume book, and there is very little about politics in the conventional sense, although there are essays on the national appeal of Bonapartism and other cultural elements of French national politics.

The Oxford Muse Foundation (www.oxfordmuse.com) was formed by Zeldin in 2001. It describes its aims as being "to pioneer new methods to improve personal, work and intercultural relationships in ways that satisfy both private and public values." One of its principal projects is the Muse Portrait Database. Individuals are free to submit their own self-portraits, including whatever they want the world to know about them. However, many of the portraits are written by another person in the "voice" of the subject, as the result of a conversation between the two. The Oxford Muse claims that, through such conversations, it can help people "to clarify their tastes, attitudes and goals in many different aspects of life; and to sum up the conclusions they have drawn from their experiences in their own words." A selection of these portraits can be found in "Guide to an Unknown City" (2004), which contains the writings of a wide variety of Oxford residents, and in "Guide to an Unknown University" (2006), which, Zeldin claimed, 'allowed professors, students, alumni, administrators and maintenance staff to reveal what they do not normally tell one another.

In 2007, Zeldin was appointed to a committee advising the French government of Nicolas Sarkozy on labour market reforms.

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5 stars
77 (23%)
4 stars
97 (29%)
3 stars
104 (32%)
2 stars
34 (10%)
1 star
12 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 33 reviews
485 reviews136 followers
April 3, 2015
I stopped reading this some time ago because it depressed me.

NOW, I have just entered into the final chapter.
So, WHAT has changed ????
Obviously the book hasn't, so obviously (yet AGAIN) it MUST BE ME!!!!

18th November ,2012

How could I have left readers hanging like THAT!!??
Why did it depress me, for a start??!!

Because I was aware of how rarely one comes across Good Listeners.

Just the other day I went to visit my barber.
I love barbers because they have you trapped in a chair and they may ply you with ...conversation!!!
Just about ALL my barbers have been Greek. And the last two were MORE...they were a species I had been reading about for years and admiring...GREEK PHILOSOPHERS...re life, politics especially...and so radical, probably BECAUSE of their age ...and they were elderly and flexible.
Alas..it couldn't last.
Anthony is full...of himself. A year ago when his Dad died we had many conversations, me in the chair and Anthony wielding the scissors.But when I went in a few weeks ago to tell him my Mum had died, Anthony never looked at me once during what I made into a brief conversation, if I can grant what occurred with so venerable a title.
Anthony spent the whole short time playing with his...ipod !!!!!!!

Now don't get me started on the New Technology and Conversation.
Am I elderly and...inflexible ?????
I AM brave
...because I encounter the people who abuse the new technology, eg.,abusing other people's Sound space. I counter by reading my book OUT LOUD.Or I may request that next time they are going to broadcast their conversation to the whole train carriage they could at least make it interesting.I do this with ...humour. Because humour is better than anger and FAR MORE EFFECTIVE. I leave them laughing. It's how I used to discipline my students. They would fall over themselves to oblige because of gentle humour and they knew I cared and liked them.

So...depressed !!!I seized it up again when I had got over this bump in my psyche.

A GOOD reason to stop.
I am stopping here...but will return. With the book so I can at least do it some justice.
BUT DO READ IT...MR ZELDIN is a very interesting thinker.
See also his "An Intimate History of Humanity".One in a Million !!

April 3rd, 2015

This is a GEM
...takes only a short time to actually READ,
BUT you may find yourself taking up a lot of time
pondering and planning in-between those reads,
and then Beyond,
putting into practice the Art of Conversation,
and enjoying encounters
Happily, I HAVE !!

Definitely worth re-reading, consulting and sharing !!!

See also
CONVERSATION - A History of a Declining Art by Stephen Miller
Profile Image for Catherine.
354 reviews
June 18, 2009
This is a quirky little book, half text and half art painted by the author himself, all as a way to try and stimulate conversation between us (the generic us, the great seething mass of general humanity). Conversation, Zeldin says, is not just talk - conversation is a skilled exchange of ideas, betraying our curiousity about others, and a particular open-mindedness, a willingness to be changed by the act of sitting and listening as much as putting things into words. Defensiveness, wanting to win an argument, and failing to listen to others are the enemies of conversation, Zeldin asserts, and they prevent us from really talking to one another in our romantic relationships, in our family lives, and all the way on up to the highest political dialogue.

I'm excited about this book mostly for what I hope it can articulate to new students in FP this fall, and for the impetus I hope it will give them to think of conversation - and not debate - as the point of their college career!
Profile Image for Kent Winward.
1,662 reviews45 followers
January 31, 2013
I picked up this little book because the author was mentioned by Alain de Botton in his NYT Book Review Interview. I was intrigued by the idea of generating new and more vibrant conversations, but in the end the book fell flat. Certainly didn't rise to its subtitle of providing a prescription for changing lives. I had the sense the author was trying much too hard and oddly, (because the author is a historian) lacked a broad historical perspective. Good conversation has always been rare and it has always existed. Decrepit conversation has always been ubiquitous, albeit in different forms. I still crave fantastic conversations -- even when I have to have them with myself -- which I think is mostly what I'm doing on Goodreads -- talking to myself about what I've just read.
Profile Image for Wen Zhe.
38 reviews
May 22, 2021
A great book by Theodore Zeldin that provokes thoughts on having conversations - be it at home, at work, and for love. There is a place for conversations in everything. It seems like in a society where we are now very siloed and always on our phones, it is more important for real meaningful conversations to be had. A must read.
Profile Image for Juliana.
28 reviews
May 21, 2015
One of the few books I rate as five stars, and one that I want to give to so many friends. Brilliant and accurate and perfect.
98 reviews19 followers
February 21, 2023
“But how can conversations make so much difference? They can’t if you believe that world is ruled by over-powering economic and political forces, that conflict is the essence of life, that humans are basically animals and that history is just a long struggle for survival and domination. If that’s true, you can’t change much. All you can do is have conversations which distract or amuse you. But I see the world differently, as made of individuals searching for a partner, for a lover, for a guru, for God. The most important, life-changing events are the meetings of these individuals. Some people get disappointed, give up searching and become cynics. But some keep on searching for new meetings.”

What a lovely viewpoint of the world. This short and my I add very economic little thing is a love letter to dialogue and conversation. It sheds light on the moments that matter in life. It reminds us that the idea behind DNA that changed the world forevermore was a product of conversation. It walks us through the different set and settings that dictate the modern rules of conversation. MASTERS OF JARGON, he calls the specialists of today denoting that they are merely taught a language that limits them to a sub sub sub part of reality and the world. Bankers who only speak of money, scientists who only talk to their labs, politicians who have lost their ability to make their own opinions. The death of good conversation is the death of humanity, he attributes the ignition of curiosity, a NEVER ENDING feat to the rise of new conversation. He reminds us of rhetoric’s evil and the time when only those who have mastered the play of beautiful words could rise through the ranks. He shows us how a VICTORIAN HOUSEWIFE-TO-BE GOING TO FINISHING SCHOOL to acquire the skill of making conversation about all sorts of topics has more skill and variety than a specialist turned manager trying to acquire the skillset of being a “generalist” after slaving away and finally proving worthy of the TRANSITION. He demonstrates the wonders of learning about different cultures through the eyes of a common topic that brings people together like Dallas, the tv show. He emphasizes and shies not away from the reason behind stifled relationships with family due to the simple lack of ability and shadowed assumptions that prevent real conversation. He uses a study from Italian family culture which tells us that Italian kids (at least 60%) learn to challenge their parents' beliefs from a very young age, making them able to have these difficult conversations before it’s too late. He shows us how shadowing a professional is more useful than learning about them. He reveals how the design of modern trains may stifle potential bonds and friendships that could last forever due to the way they distribute their seats. He emphasizes that love and strong partnerships grow out of discussion not courtship. A call for a new kind of Renaissance man through mastering the art of dialogue, one who is immensely passionate, a curious traveller, and a brave questioner. Absolutely loved it!

P.S. I would have never picked up such a book but it was given to me from one of my favourite humans on earth after one of many truly life changing conversations.
Profile Image for Harris.
304 reviews
March 25, 2021
This is not a self-help book. It is not teaching you how to converse. He wants the focus to be in having sincere conversations. A tool used to meet with others from different backgrounds and allow yourself to see from other peoples perspectives and learn from it. Not a new idea.

Made me want to have dinner with my neighbors.

He mentioned some interesting parts about conversations at work. How it can become monotonous. He asks, "What job offers the most enchanting and surprising conversations? Almost everyone says that the more varied the people they meet at work, the more fun it is, though often they exchange only a few words." As a librarian, I agree that their isn't any boredom with the amount of diverse people I meet/help.

Really enjoyed his conversations asking doctors and engineers how long it would take to teach him how to become one. The doctor said, "six weeks" and the engineer said, "3 months". This was of course not to make him become a real doctor/engineer, but to understand their language and their problems. To get an idea of how they solve problems and learn the essence of the way they think. That would be fun to do (a type of job-shadowing).

I'll conclude with his statement, "at least half of what learns at college is promptly forgotten." I am in full agreement.
Profile Image for Dennis Leth.
88 reviews3 followers
June 5, 2021
Great book on the necessity of conversations.

I actually bought this book due to my interest in futuristic thinking. It's kind of funny to see how searching for knowledge can bring you great breadcrumbs. I didn't know about Theodore Zeldin and his line of work before buying this book. I kind of feel lucky now, that I bought 2 books from the author at that time.

This book is about a therapy for our collective loss of meaning and connectivity. The loss of real communication as conversations are.

I believe the author is right, when he say's that the lack of conversations and speaking out has more to do with fear of failure and fear of social exclusion than a lack of things to say. I also believe that we have gotten to a point, where we are all specialist within our segment and in our native language that it's difficult to uphold a conversations as we no longer speak the same language.

The best thing ALL of us could do is engage in more conversations. Show more guts and transparency in regards of our thoughts and thinkings. The more we connect, the more connections there will be and it will surely bring more ideas and better futures to future generations.

Are you willing to start a conversation.
Profile Image for David.
377 reviews8 followers
July 10, 2020
This sliver of a book left almost no impression on me. Interspersed with paintings of abstract ideas the text is maybe 40 tiny pages in large font. I like the idea of the tiny book because an author can really cut the fat out and hone the polemic. Conversation, is none of that. Like a weak-wristed handshake it, kinda, if you please, like, suggests to you that, you know, conversation is sort-of a dying art-form, and maybe, if it doesn't trouble you too much, we should, you know, maybe think about doing some more of it. Only if you've got nothing better to do of course.
Profile Image for Hendrik Borginon.
30 reviews1 follower
December 23, 2020
I didn't quite know what to make of it. It certainly contains some nice anecdotes and reflections and the book serves as a decent appetiser to thinking about conversation's significance in areas from romance to the satisfaction of one's daily life. It fails to deliver beyond posing these questions however and falls flat. I was perhaps hoping for it to be more, but that might not be a fair expectation of a book that is ultimately just a transcription of a BBC radio show. I enjoyed it though and think three stars is about fair.
5 reviews
September 11, 2019
I was hoping for a how-to book, which it wasn't, but I think it's helpful all the same. I appreciated his comments about being a specialist in your profession and a generalist in life. I appreciated his recognition of what we can learn from children and from people of many different backgrounds and professions. As he says, travel abroad is an essential part of education, which is never complete.
The author shaped my opinions and gave me a lot to consider. I think that's a great conversation.
Profile Image for Noelia C. Sanz.
12 reviews1 follower
January 7, 2018
No me ha gustado nada, salvo el primer capítulo. Viene poco contenido, ya que la mitad son cuadros abstractos del propio autor. No me ha resultado útil en absoluto, aunque pasé un buen rato sacando algunos temas de conversación de los que vienen al final. No lo recomiendo.
Profile Image for Agnese.
28 reviews4 followers
May 12, 2018
Little touching book about great meaning of deep conversation in present day. Author speaks about different kinds of conversation - at home, at work, with loved ones and with ourselfes convincing that true and meaningful conversation can really start changes in our private and common lifes.
260 reviews1 follower
April 23, 2020
Snappy little book about the evolution of conversation. Contains a few gems such as, "Wit has been humanity's liberator against the boredom that most conversation has induced, humanity's protector against speakers who get drunk on their own verbosity." Very enjoyable.
Profile Image for Rosa.
32 reviews
March 22, 2023
Very interesting, and the accompanying paintings are fascinating.
Profile Image for Kristine.
239 reviews6 followers
August 24, 2014
I saw this on a colleague's shelf and borrowed it, and it sat on the shelf until I came across it in an odd moment, sat down and skimmed as much of it as I need to read. It was originally talks on BBC4, by “a fellow and former dean” at Oxford – doesn’t say what department or subject, they probably don’t have those at Oxford – but philosophy was a big part of his preparation, however it happened. Gorgeous paintings by the author all the way through this tiny little almost exactly 100 book, and at first I was thinking: Well clearly I have to own this, and buy several copies to give to every erudite friend I have. A few pages later it was clear to me: Well, maybe not. I think these must have been wonderful to listen to on the radio, but reading them it becomes obvious there’s not a lot of there there, mostly some strong opinions, a smattering of historical detail, some observation of popular culture, and a real interest in creating polemic. Might still be worth having for the paintings, although I wish they were bigger than the 5 x 7 size of the book, but there isn’t really anything to learn or teach here.

OK one phrase, p. 88: Conversation needs pauses, thoughts need time to make love.
Profile Image for Mark.
154 reviews18 followers
May 20, 2014
A British philosopher looks at the demise of conversation and the implications for society at large.

The most ominous result is that no one talks to strangers and we confine our conversations almost exclusively to those who are like-minded. This creates an insular and warped version of the world. Not too long ago, it was inconceivable to spend any period of time with a stranger and not talk to them. Now, it is commonplace for strangers to spend hours at a time together and never exchange a single word, let alone debate an idea. Overall, an interesting book with the overarching message of: Talk to strangers and those you disagree with – you might learn something.
Profile Image for Laura Hartmark.
31 reviews7 followers
October 29, 2021
Zeldin may be one of the few humans who remembered to live while living. And while living, he appears to have remembered to think while living. While thinking, undoubtedly, he was been walking - for walking improved thinking. And, from time to time I’d wager he held hands with someone. Undoubtedly so. If you read nothing else ( and likely, lately, you should read nothing else ), read Zeldin. O how I thrill at the zils of Zeldin!
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
12 reviews5 followers
January 3, 2008
Tiny little book, but thought provoking. Check out his project/organization "the muse" (google it) which grew out of this and "intimate history", is on a mission to inspire more meaningful conversations between people of all walks of life.
Profile Image for Story.
856 reviews4 followers
January 24, 2016
Thought-provoking book on the role conversation plays in our happiness and sense of connectedness to others, and about how talking to each other broadens our understanding and helps us grow. Also contains beautiful art and questions designed to deepen our conversations.
Profile Image for Mary.
1 review3 followers
September 17, 2012
I really like the idea of this book, and it certainly offers some very encouraging ideas about the benefits afforded by a greater commitment to the pursuit of good conversation...I wish there was a bit more of it though!
Profile Image for Hannah.
16 reviews3 followers
February 28, 2014
Cute book of ideas and pretty illustrations. I think the title is misleading, maybe it's more about how the right kind of conversation can enhance our lives. It's a lovely additional read to whichever novel and non-fiction books you have going on.
Profile Image for A.
14 reviews
October 16, 2008
Best little book! I inspires you to want to have conversation with a new intent and appreciation.

Profile Image for Gary.
82 reviews4 followers
January 30, 2011
he says in chapter 1 that if you have a Conflict Theorist's view of the world then this book is pointless to you... he was right.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 33 reviews

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