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The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure

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Read Catherine Blyth's posts on the Penguin Blog.

A wide-ranging, exhortatory look at the pleasures of great conversation, including strategies for how to bring it about, from the witty pen of an Englishwoman wise in its ways

In The Art of Conversation , Catherine Blyth eloquently points out the sorry state of disrepair that conversation has fallen into—and then, taking examples from history, literature, philosophy, anthropology, and popular culture, she gives us the tools to rebuild. Her prose embodies the conversational values she It’s smart, succinct, self-deprecating, and light on its feet.

The Art of Conversation isn’t about etiquette, elocution, or knowing how to hold your teacup with your little finger crooked just so. It’s about something simple and connecting. In our distracted days, it’s easy to forget that each of us possesses a communication technology that has been in research and development for thousands of years. Conversation costs nothing, but can bring you the world.

Blyth offers us a chance to revel in the possibilities of conversation. As Alexander Pope nearly wrote, “True ease in talking comes from art, not chance, as those move easiest who have learned to dance.” Okay, Pope was actually talking about writing, but Catherine Blyth has that skill as well. When you have read The Art of Conversation , you’ll not only know the steps, but hear the music like never before.

304 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2008

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Catherine Blyth

9 books15 followers

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5 stars
58 (7%)
4 stars
125 (17%)
3 stars
254 (34%)
2 stars
197 (27%)
1 star
94 (12%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 124 reviews
Profile Image for Bookworm Amir.
198 reviews95 followers
April 19, 2012
Surprisingly, a book about conversation - it itself fails to talk well.

Blame on the editor, or the general structuring of the topics - the ideas are everywhere.

I could have just read the first page, where she summarizes what makes a conversation work, and the last few pages where it wraps out, in a matter of short, pitiful sentences, the 'art of conversation'.

I don't think I have learnt anything new by reading from this - at all.

Most darnedest of all is the language of the author - who does she think she is, talking in circles, talking about random stuffs, referring to memes that we know nothing of. Its almost as if she was rambling in this book. WHAT THE HECK IS SHE TALKING ABOUT, MOST OF THE TIMES?!

Trust me, fellow prospector - do not read this book.
962 reviews4 followers
October 4, 2009
It just didn't read well. It came off as the author telling me 'Look, I'm so clever' She had too many quotes from famous people and cute stories, and she didn't make her points clearly.
Finally, the pointless flings at children with special needs would not be considered polite in any conversation-here is just one: "Attention deficit disorder- formerly known as annoying brat syndrome, is a clumsy term for a pervasive social blight: bad listening."
I skimmed the last 2/3 of the book, in hope there was some saving grace. Finding none I returned it to the library.
Profile Image for Jaclyn.
66 reviews343 followers
February 9, 2017
This book had good content, and I especially enjoyed the numbered ideas of what to do in difficult conversational situations. Unfortunately, the whole book was brought down for me by its tone. The writing was excessively self-deprecating, mentioning numerous times that the author found herself failing in conversation, and then didn't offer much information as she went along to redeem my perception of her capabilities. This led me to have a lack of faith in the author as an expert on the topic.

The book became a bit of a labour for me, although it did pique my interest in the topic of conversation.
Profile Image for Anna White.
14 reviews
July 13, 2014
Proceeds with a laudable goal, but, like a poor conversationalist or poetry critic, this book is perhaps a bit too clever for its own good, an impression created through excessive quotation and unduly ornate language. Redeemed somewhat by being a fast read, presenting a decent defense of small talk, and being somewhat forgiven on the grounds of being British (perhaps I'm merely a brash American who uncharitably sees insincerity where tact is intended...).
Profile Image for Leena.
Author 2 books26 followers
February 26, 2012
I read this book with three points of view in mind: the first being an intent to make social media better (as that is what I'm paid to do), the second being that I am a naturally introverted person who can always use a few pointers, and the third, as a writer looking for ways to improve my characters' dialogues.

Ms. Blythe gives us a book chock full of information. I found it all very interesting and it gave me a lot to think about in terms of how people communicate today. I'm not as down on technology as she appears to be, but I agree with many of her points. Most of us have lost the ability to go back and forth. Instead, we put our thoughts out there in a "take 'em or leave 'em" type of way, which is very alienating. I think that, despite being a part of the problem, technological advances can be part of the solution, but, that's a thesis for another time.

Like other reviewers, I sometimes got a little lost. Ms. Blythe would often use examples to get across her point, instead of using examples to illustrate them. If the example was too far removed from my culture, I missed out (which made me sad!). Other times I felt like the book contradicted itself. But, why wouldn't it? Conversation is about a process and there are no hard and fast rules that apply without regard to circumstance.

That said, I still really liked this book. I felt it was easy to read and it left me wanting to delve even further into the topic. I read it in e-book format, but I may purchase a hard copy so I can flip through it again at my leisure.
Profile Image for BreAnna.
116 reviews11 followers
June 19, 2014
Ok, so I didn't actually finish reading this one, but I just couldn't. It was so dull and terribly written in my opinion. There was only a small thread that attempted to tie together all the chapters, but really it was just a ramble by the author about various thoughts and quotes pertaining to conversing. "A Guided Tour" it was not. At first I thought the meandering was intentional, to simulate what happens in actual conversation as thoughts come and topics wander. But in actual conversation, you get back to the central track. There was no such central path to be found. The one thing I could say for the book was that it was fun to hold - a good size, the solidity of a hardback, but light. And it is light for a reason: there's not much in it.
Profile Image for Dominic.
72 reviews26 followers
July 22, 2017

THE GOOD: Globalization and our culture is forcing us to communicate in ways that involve less face-to-face conversations than ever. Consequently, the art of conversation is quickly disappearing. While many teens and young adults become proficient in texting, e-mail, and facebooking, we seem to be losing an art that was once vastly enjoyed. In this book, by Catherine Blyth, the author tries to give us tips to make us better conversationalists. While I did enjoy some points and chapters at the beginning of the book (ex: the importance of small-talk, listening, silence, etc) by the middle of the book I was ready to pretty much give up (when she starts talking about how to respond to insults, jabs, etc).

THE BAD: At certain points it felt like she was just giving us lists and "rules" to follow, which seem completely unnatural to follow during the course of normal conversation. As the author notes many times, conversation is a lot more than simply conveying information. It is about exchanging emotion. And on that point, sadly, there is very little the author can offer to make us better emotionally aware and able to express ourselves fully and naturally.

THE UGLY: Things like confidence, charm, and the likes which are so crucial to being a person other people want to converse with cannot be given to us by the author. However, the book was still interesting and her style of writing did not slow me down or bother me one bit (as other reviewers have mentioned). Overall, I would not read it again but was interesting enough to keep me reading until the end. 3 stars.
Profile Image for ValeReads Kyriosity.
1,123 reviews153 followers
December 2, 2017
Two problems—one the author's, one mine:

When you don't build a book of advice re the use of the tongue on the foundational principle of loving one's neighbor, even on some truncated secular version thereof, you're going to end up with shoddy architecture, indeed.

There are some people who can read and sufficiently synthesize technical manuals that the information therein remains useful when application becomes necessary. I am not such a person. Or else it is a discipline I have never learned, but ought to have done. If the latter, please do not recommend a book on the topic.
Profile Image for Kathryn Bashaar.
Author 2 books88 followers
November 7, 2009
Terrible. Couldn't get past page 30. Completely disorganized writing style, clunky sentences, one random non-sequiter after another. And why the hell is the word "reconfigured" on quotation marks on page 14?
21 reviews3 followers
February 11, 2010
A book that has me pulled in two directions: on the one hand, I think it has some really good content, but on the other hand, it is an uphill read.

Regarding the content, the book is first rate, as Blyth presents good guidance on navigating conversation. The "rules" in each chapter are made explicit and given a good foundational context immediately following each rule. Plenty of anecdotes and wordplay abound, making what would seem like boring bit of etiquette fun to explore. Also, the bibliography at the end provides some good supporting works to follow on your reading of this book.

However, parsing the content of this book is cumbersome. While I realize the author is British, and they do love their plays on words, this manuscript is written so cleverly that it makes it hard to follow. I know my reading flow was slowed considerably, and this lessened my enjoyment of the book because of it. I noticed this happened less the further I got into the book, but it happened throughout.

For those looking for some good content on conversation with plenty of funny stories to prop it up, this book will serve you well. If you find the book's writing to be a bit too much, you can take the highlight version and read just the bolded rules in each chapter (though, if you do this, why bother reading the book?). I'd give it a 2.5 out of 5 if I could.
30 reviews
March 3, 2013
I spent a good deal of my life being quiet, and preferring not to speak unless I had something to say, so it caught my eye when I saw someone dedicate a book on conversation. Although, the author artfully depicts certain situations and characters that come up which set the tone for each conversation, I found it hard to maintain attention. I found all the roundabout British humor distracting, and as an American I like things direct. However, I do think it a worthwhile read for those who have maintained quietness because 1) they were too afraid to offend someone by disagreeing 2)because they weren't paying attention to those around them 3) or they perceived the conversation too difficult.

The subject itself is wonderful. As conversation is ubiquitous, it also seems to be taken for granted and its potential often not maximized. But the book is not something that keeps me on the edge of my seat-it's not something I eagerly want to finish: hence, the 2 month reading period.
Profile Image for Dan Stern.
951 reviews7 followers
January 11, 2021
At a time when there are so many books on conversation, it is good to find one that is slightly different.
This book, rather than solely advising on etiquette, discusses types of conversation and types of conversationalists, examining a wide variety of these and offering us certain principles that might assist our conversation flow with a diverse range of personalities. There is also a discussion of various responses that we might like to use if we are ever pushed into a tight corner. This mixture of etiquette and fallacy gives us an `Aristotle meets Leil Lowndes' feel - a highly potent mixture.

If you are looking for an introduction to this material, you will probably find it rather difficult to follow because the style is a little incoherent - an ironic fault to find in a book about human communication. However, having said this, the selection of material is brilliant. If you are already fairly well read, you'll probably enjoy the book because of the way in which it pulls together many related fields.
Profile Image for Komal.
33 reviews73 followers
March 8, 2013
"Walk into any bar or internet cafe and you'd think conversation is going out of style"
Regrettably, I judged the whole book by that only slightly funny one line, and bought the damn thing, and have regretted it ever since. It is an insipid, idiotic book built entirely on the premise that our wills have been bent to the evils of technology and that we have all but ripped off the arteries of the English language with all the "brb's" we send on text. It reads as something written by an egotistical 20-something who was fueled entirely by vapid compliments given to her by a bunch of dumb friends about how funny she was. Half the time it is a rant against technology. And very often there are neat little diagrams about what to avoid ("weather") and what not to avoid ("humour"). And overally, nothing in the book is remotely going to contribute to the art of conversation. Just. Whatever.
Profile Image for Mary.
835 reviews46 followers
August 18, 2012
For someone who wants us to talk to each other more, Blyth certainly doesn't seem to have a high opinion of her interlocutors. In rafting and kayaking there's something called "positive point": you don't point to the big rock, but the direction you want your co-rafters to go. The same would be useful here. Blyth's commonplace book of conversational anecdotes, both ancient and modern, keeps confusing rules, exceptions and bad examples. While it's fun to have a list of cruel snappy comebacks or caricature of people you should hate, it's hardly the sort of thing I think of when I think "art" and "neglected pleasure." She would do better off to leave her hang-wringing over Facebook and Twitter and think about why, exactly, she wants to talk to those around her.
Profile Image for Sally George.
113 reviews2 followers
March 18, 2013
I found the book really heavy going but was determined to finish it. Here is an example "This stupefyingly infantile compound item pairs an aspect of the aggressors physiognomy or personality with an unthreatening adjective to form an absurd epithet (alliterative or rhyming for extra impact)". The parts I could understand were interesting. I particularly liked a quote when discussing the fact that the social knit of office life is riven with power imbalances.... "In my department, there are six people who are afraid of me and one small secretary who is afraid of all of us. I have one other person working for me who is not afraid of anyone, not even me, and I would fire him quickly, but I am afraid of him".
Profile Image for Courtney.
1,013 reviews32 followers
May 9, 2020
Ugh the tone is all over the place, she has numerous quotes and anecdotes and many of them aren’t really relevant and it feels like padding and/or name dropping —showing off in poor taste. I struggled through the introduction and she’s not someone I’d want “have a beer with”. I felt like rolling my eyes. I did not enjoy when she talked about herself.

I’ve had this book for a good while, I was so looking forward to it and I thought it would be nice accompaniment to my other Language/linguistics book I’ve been reading recently. However, the writing - or perhaps it’s the editing - is poor. Who is her audience? What is her purpose? Because it sounds like she’s trying - and failing - to impress me AND come off as self deprecating. She comes off as desperate, stuffy, awkward, disorganized...
Profile Image for Christine Beverly.
205 reviews1 follower
June 25, 2016
Ok--I'm cheating to say that I "finished" this book. I'm giving up on it. Frankly, it's too much work to read, and the main points it makes regarding things like humor, boredom, and lying are kind of obvious. The book jumps from "Rules" that aren't all really rules--more like observations--to sections between and after them where the type obviously changes, but it's unclear sometimes why the sections are there at all or why they are in THAT place. I did enjoy all the literary references made to illustrate points, but the leaps from her text to the quoted material is sometimes jarring and distracting. Summer awaits, and life is too short to finish this one.
3 reviews
July 4, 2016
Every so often I read a book and decide to refer to it as a guide. The Art of Conversation is definitely one of them. Blyth explains why we have conversations and offers some 'tactics' in many situations. Its' simple yet effective anecdotes are in fact guides on conversation. The examples used are meaningful and interesting. Her book is filled with humour, kindness and wit. The author certainly dedicated years of research for this book. It is a fabulous book. I would love to have a conversation with Catherine Blyth.
Profile Image for Deane Barker.
Author 6 books34 followers
May 11, 2018
I shouldn't have finished this. The author's writing style bugged me.

I did like how the book is organized -- a chapter for each different aspect of conversation, each with a set of "Rules" -- but she kills the momentum with her writing. She'll never use a simple word where a complex one will do, and she goes overboard on a flowery, literary style.

This book could have been straightforward, to-the-point, and helpful. Instead, it seemed to be an exercise in how much the author could impress herself with obscure anecdotes and pretentious language.
Profile Image for Misti.
232 reviews13 followers
March 17, 2016
Taking an interesting journey through philosophy and literature and using film stars and historic figures as examples, if you enjoy British witt this book will 'have you at hello.'

While the writing felt unorganized, choppy, and sometimes hard to follow there were gems of hilarity sprinkled throughout as the author explored the decline of conversations in our culture.

In summary, I need a witty British friend.
Profile Image for Joel Siege.
2 reviews
May 1, 2014
Other than the author's staggering bombast in her choice of vocabulary and sometimes obscure imagery, this is a rather fascinating read. The insights offered are rich and delivered in a manner that makes you smack yourself in the head for not having known about them sooner.
Profile Image for Lowell.
182 reviews9 followers
March 25, 2010
The first book I ever returned to the store... after 30 pages! Reads too much like a US Weekly article.
Profile Image for brian tanabe.
387 reviews27 followers
May 26, 2010
I'm still not sure whether to take this book seriously or not.
Profile Image for Adrian.
34 reviews
August 3, 2012
She knows what she's talking about. Problem is people don't listen anymore :)
Profile Image for John.
1,070 reviews9 followers
April 3, 2019
I'd converse with her anytime, but the audio of her message was a bit tough to chew on (somewhat scattery)
Profile Image for Pankaj.
204 reviews3 followers
February 13, 2023
It started off promisingly enough but soon became "jumpy" and "scattered" thanks to both - a bad writing style, and, even worse editing. If Catherine had stuck to writing this as an essay with select, pithy pointers on how to facilitate conversations and embellished these with a few smart quotes, she could have produced a winner!

I did like some of the quotes, e.g.,:

- G.K. Chesterton “There is no such thing as an uninteresting subject; there are only uninterested people.”
- Disraeli “Talk to a man about himself and he will listen for hours”
- Super agent Mark McCormack urged aspiring tycoons: “Hear what people are really saying as opposed to what they are telling you.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson “What you are sounds so loudly in my ears that I can’t hear what you say”
- Philosopher Hannah Arendt worried that we would lose the ability to question: Ethics, after all, derive from our feelings, and if we don’t understand something, it is harder to sense shoot is right or wrong, let alone argue against it. How many of us can comprehend, never mind democratically vote on, nanotechnology, or GM food, animals, embryos?
- Matthew Taylor of Royal Society of Arts puts it “We have to ask ourselves why the internet is so good for wankers, gamblers and shoppers, and not so good for citizens and communities.”

Started to scan, then skip pages before giving up a little over halfway through. Did take down a useful lesson - to speak less and listen more, showing greater interest in the other conversationalist.
4 reviews2 followers
June 5, 2019
The book itself is filled with some interesting concepts that may be helpful to someone struggling with conversation. However it’s so obfuscated with dry wit and confusing diction that you never know if the author is serious. It weaves back and forth between serious, palatable advice and self-depreciating humor that I don’t know what to take seriously. While it is filled with anecdotal and historical information, I would steer away from it if you’re looking to seriously improve your conversational skills.

To be honest I couldn’t finish it. I ended up reading the first 70 pages then skimming through the rest for useful information.
5 reviews
January 3, 2019
I couldn’t finish it! I gave up after reading 2/3 of it.
A. Her British words all over. I had to have a dictionary by my side and wasted time looking for word definitions. Tiresome!
B. Long sentences with many commas inside. They spin your mind taking you from one idea to another and then back to the original without finishing anything. Tiresome!
C. As I was reading, often I had to ask myself: is she for or against this practice/concept/idea? Very convoluted!
D. Very little for applications to your life. Very few “dos and don’ts”
I can’t recommend it to anyone.
Profile Image for Geri Hoekzema.
87 reviews5 followers
May 7, 2021
A book on a subject many of us have stumbled over at some point. Blyth covers all the necessities, including greetings, openings, small talk, listening and topics. Interspersed among sections are snippets of conversation between notable conversationalists past and present, and examples of conversational demolition. I wasn't as down on the book as most of the other reviewers, probably because I don't mind a meandering style of writing and I enjoy historical anecdotes. If you want a how-to with bullet points, this isn't the book for you.
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