Monday, November 30, 2009

November 30: "Don'ts" for Conversation (Vol. 27, pp. 91-98)

It seems to be the pattern of the reading guide that just when you are about to throw your hands up in despair over the parade of overwrought poets, obtuse philosophers and incomprehensible playwrights, a selection comes along that justifies the time spent with it.

Today is a good example of this pattern. It's Jonathan Swift's 343rd birthday, and to mark the occasion, we get "An Essay on Conversation." It is Swiftian satire at its best as he looks at the common excesses in having to talk with other people in social situations.

It holds up wonderfully after 300 years, because people still talk to much about themselves, prattle on with stories their listeners have already heard many times before, force humor into situations where none is warranted, and so on.

Swift's rule is simple: "Never to say a thing which any of the company can reasonably wish we had rather left unsaid." Also, he advises not to interrupt or allow yourself to be interrupted. To achieve his goal of good conversation — "to entertain and improve those we are among, or to receive those benefits ourselves' — one has to apply an old Vermont aphorism — talk less and say more.

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