Culture: How to impress your dinner guests

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Indy Lifestyle Online

As Christmas approaches, various publishers are hoping that their stocking-fillers will become the Eats, Shoots & Leaves of 2008. This is a prize that only one book can claim – the winner will outsell its nearest rival by hundreds of thousands of copies – and the next few weeks will see dozens of competitors enter the fray.

One promising contender is The Art of Conversation by Catherine Blyth. Ostensibly a how-to manual for would-be conversationalists, it is a treasure trove of literary and historical delights, with each page containing a little gem in the form of a quotation or a factoid. However, it is not the exhaustiveness of the author's research that makes this book a potential bestseller, but the fact that it preys on a very British form of social anxiety. After all, who among us has not worried about seeming boring at a dinner party?

This book is almost guaranteed to do well because the fear of being dull is one of the principal reasons people buy books in the first place. We devour Robert Harris's latest novel – and Anthony Beevor's most recent account of an epic battle – because it will give us something to talk about the next time we find ourselves in a socially competitive situation. The notion that people read for pleasure is completely wrong-headed; people read to avoid the displeasure of not having anything to say when the latest book comes up in conversation.

To my mind, this explains why movie tie-in editions of books do so well. It can't simply be that people who didn't buy the books first time round are suddenly persuaded to take an interest in them when the film comes out. Rather, people know that the movie in question will inevitably be discussed at the next dinner party they go to, and at some point they'll be asked whether they've read the book. To be able to say "Yes" is a source of intense satisfaction.

I can imagine The Art of Conversation becoming a film in the same way that Stephen Potter's One-Upmanship books became School For Scoundrels. In the meantime, people will buy it for the same reason they buy all books: to give themselves something to talk about.

'The Art of Conversation' by Catherine Blyth is published by John Murray at £12.99

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