Book World: Reviews of 'Why Manners Matter,'The Art of Conversation' and More

By Michael Lindgren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

If ever there was a topic that seemed doomed to perpetual obsolescence, etiquette is it. The word conjures up dusty tomes of irrelevant injunctions about silverware and fox trots, the hostess descending the marble stairs just as the ambassador and his retinue disembark from their Bentley. Meanwhile, a lament about the decline of manners generally meets with vague agreement, at least as long as it doesn't interfere with our cellphone-jabbering, line-jumping, stroller-bulldozing ways. Good manners are one of those abstractions that everyone is in favor of, in principle . . . if only one weren't in such a hurry this afternoon.

That is the paradox upon which professional speechwriter Lucinda Holdforth launches a frontal assault. Billed as an eloquent defense of the civilizing principles for social interaction, "Why Manners Matter" (Amy Einhorn/Putnam, $19.95) instead deteriorates with alarming rapidity into a free-form rant against pretty much everything. What could have been a thoughtful essay in the style of Montaigne or La Rochefoucauld is instead a most un-continental list of pet peeves. Holdforth holds forth in a little too disorganized a fashion to be effective, and grousing about automated telephone systems -- which surely have no defenders -- is hardly the hallmark of an incisive social critic.

The sleek Catherine Blyth is undoubtedly a delightful dinner-party guest, judging from the principles she puts down in "The Art of Conversation" (Gotham, $22.50) in an airy, here-we-all-are tone. Unfortunately, she is less well suited to the role of serious social commentator. While not as prolix as Holdforth, and decidedly less heated, her "war on shyness" quickly becomes repetitive. Like a cookbook that features lavish photos and eloquent descriptions of Tuscan trattorias but whose pages remain unstained by a smidgen of flour or a smear of butter, Blyth's book is more meditative than prescriptive.

As a stubborn Luddite and serial purchaser of fine stationery that I cannot afford and will not use, I would seem to be the ideal reader for Molly O'Shaughnessy's "Just Write: The Art of Personal Correspondence" (Gibbs Smith, $12.99). Unfortunately, the twee and precious alternate universe that O'Shaughnessy inhabits ("Children love to hear about the first time you met your future spouse. . . . They will ask you again and again to retell the story") bears so little resemblance to the one inhabited by my own brood that her book comes off as a peculiarly grisly exercise in unintentional self-parody.

Your correspondent was frightened by Florence Isaacs's "What Do You Say When . . .?" (Clarkson Potter, $18), with its demands and exhortations and quizzes -- he is frightened by all schoolteacherly women -- until he remembered that Isaacs can't see him. The relief was temporary, however; like O'Shaughnessy, Isaacs inhabits a world that clearly has no point of intersection with, say, early-21st-century Manhattan. Anyone who acts upon Isaacs's advice to fill a gap in conversation by delivering "the latest report on cholesterol or the top story about a newfangled diet" should be warned: Most people I know would suspect the speaker of either committing an esoteric form of sarcasm or being under the influence of some potent intoxicant. Neither is probably the effect that Isaacs's earnest coaching aims to produce.

It makes perfect sense -- it's rather cheering, really -- that the etiquette columnist for the Boston Globe is not an imperious WASP but a Midwestern-born converted Jew who has blunt things to say about both Christopher Hitchens and the soi-disant war on Christmas. Robin Abrahams's "Miss Conduct's Mind Over Manners" (Times, $15) is a droll yet emphatic exercise in sturdy common sense, which is all etiquette is, really. Although Abrahams is a little too fond of the latest advances in pop sociology, and providing punchy precis thereof, her book is nonetheless a thoughtful and amusing piece of writing.

Even the savvy and cosmopolitan Abrahams, however, cannot avoid the poignant whiff of desperation that these authors share, for surely they know that the people most in need of these books are also the least likely to buy them. There can hardly be anything more quixotic than making a public plea for improved collective behavior. A reader of a certain temperament and educational background -- and on one level it is all temperament and educational background -- found himself thinking, perhaps oddly, of that crusty old radical, Herbert Marcuse, and his concept of "oppressive tolerance." Unlike our flexible and forgiving hostesses and guides, Marcuse concluded that some actions are simply not tolerable; the abrogation of collective ethics, and the ultimate permissiveness that accompanies it, ultimately becomes its own form of oppression. In the end, all these books have to offer are elaborately phrased requests for us all to be nicer to each other.

Michael Lindgren is a musician and poet who divides his time, politely, between Manhattan and Pennsylvania.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company