As we’ve often been told, the art of conversation is on life support, ravaged by the excesses of technology. Hooked to our phones and laptops, or so the theory goes, we’ve lost the true gift for gab. Sherry Turkle, one of many writers who have noted the problem, weighed in with her book “Reclaiming Conversation,” in 2015. “We hide from each other even as we’re constantly connected to each other,” Ms. Turkle told readers. “For on our screens, we are tempted to present ourselves as we would like to be.”

In “Talking Cure,” billed as “an essay on the civilizing power of conversation,” Paula Marantz Cohen echoes some of Ms. Turkle’s laments about online culture as a corrupting influence on conversation. But Ms. Cohen, a professor of English at Drexel University and the dean of its honors college, finds other culprits, too—some well-publicized, and others that readers might not have considered.

Political polarization quickly rears its head as a conversation killer, blocking the interchange of different perspectives that give a good talk its vitality. “To speak to the converted or the entirely familiar is not to truly converse,” Ms. Cohen writes. “It is to have one’s beliefs reinforced; it is self-soothing but not self-developing.” Mentioning the liberal pedigree of her family, Ms. Cohen writes gratefully about how her world view was expanded by a deep friendship and decades of thoughtful exchanges with a conservative colleague who has since died. “What sustained us in our disagreement,” she recalls, “was our mutual respect, indeed deep affection, for each other. It was a feeling that carried moral as well as emotional weight.”

Disagreement, Ms. Cohen suggests, is an essential element: “Good conversation digs deep into a subject, turns it over, examines it from angles that might otherwise remain in shadow, and presents hypotheses that may be wrong or even unpleasant, but thought-provoking.” Such openness to opposing viewpoints is now harder to come by in national life. “I used to routinely adopt the devil’s advocate position in class,” she writes, “but I find it harder to do this now, when dissenting viewpoints are less tolerated and when playful or ironic positions are taken literally.”

As in many of her previous writings, such as “On Human Kindness,” a 2021 book that explored lessons from Shakespeare about empathy, in “Talking Cure” Ms. Cohen looks to literature for useful instruction about her subject. Though she makes numerous arguments for the civic benefits of conversation, the chief value of this book is its abiding reminder of the pleasure of good talk.

Ms. Cohen is deeply read, and her mind is like a curio cabinet that displays a collection of bright and interesting things.

In surveying centuries of celebrated talk—touching on figures as varied as Epictetus, William Wordsworth, Virginia Woolf and Langston Hughes—Ms. Cohen’s book offers evidence that for all its challenges, conversation has been an impressively resilient fixture of our species. Her models of good conversation include Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century English wit whose bon mots were copiously recorded by his friend and biographer, James Boswell. But Ms. Cohen makes the point that Boswell was more than a mere stenographer of Johnson’s dinner-table pronouncements. He was a cheerful interlocutor, challenging Johnson’s assumptions in a way that brought out the best in his mentor. It’s a lesson in how conversation can reveal our truest, fullest selves.

The obstacles to good conversation can be as simple as the spaces in which we’d like to linger and chat. Ms. Cohen sighs at the popular fashion in industrial décor at restaurants, where steel tables and backless chairs don’t exactly invite warm exchanges. More broadly, she finds that talk “of a staged and highly predictable sort” is all around us, “on talk shows, TV panels, interviews, YouTube clips and podcasts,” ersatz conversation that replaces the unpredictable, real thing with an often scripted substitute. One surprising figure she calls out for a negative effect on conversation is Ronald Reagan. His disciplined PR strategy, still a popular model, “flies in the face of the serendipity and spontaneity that characterize real conversation,” she writes. “It may well be that Reagan’s example, through its extraordinary success and superficial appeal, debased political conversation—and beyond that, all conversation—more thoroughly than any other figure in history.”

One wouldn’t even have to be a particular fan of Reagan to find Ms. Cohen’s assertion a strange piece of hyperbole. (Later in “Talking Cure,” she points to more obvious enemies of conversation, dictators such as Hitler and Stalin.)

Ms. Cohen’s glancing takedown of the 40th president doesn’t reflect the general tone of “Talking Cure,” which is measured and magnanimous. Elsewhere, she mentions in a more salutary vein Reagan’s convivial chats with his political opponent, House Speaker Tip O’Neill. In a passage arguing that women’s talk has often been unfairly dismissed as trivial, Ms. Cohen sympathetically cites former First Lady Nancy Reagan as a likely victim of sexism.

Maybe, as with the long-predicted demise of poetry, reading and the republic itself, the art of conversation just might pull through in spite of our folly. The poor state of good talk, after all, is an enduring complaint. Ms. Cohen quotes one commentator’s fear that conversation, “so useful and innocent a pleasure, so fitted for every period and condition of life, and so much in all men’s power, should be so much neglected and abused.”

That was Jonathan Swift, who left the scene in 1745.

Mr. Heitman, a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, frequently reviews books for the Journal.