Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit
By Joseph Epstein
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 242 pages, $25)
This gift-buying season is turning out to be a good one for readers. Among many worthy titles, Joseph Epstein’s Gossip, stands out.
For his regular readers, a new Epstein book is a much-looked-forward-to event. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s an opportunity to sample from one of the nation’s most entertaining writers and most acute observers of all precincts of the Vanity Fair we call life.
As for the entertainment portion, no less a critic than the late William F. Buckley Jr., in his review of Epstein’s 2002 book Snobbery, called Epstein “the wittiest writer alive.” Now there’s a book blurb for the ages. Our Bill certainly knew witty when he saw it, or, in Epstein’s case, read it.
Epstein previously, in books that instruct while they entertain, has sorted Snobbery, Friendship, and Envy. Now, to our advantage, he’s performed the same service for “Gossip,” an often reviled but well-nigh universal activity.
(Please, no groaning protestations that you aren’t interested in gossip and certainly don’t engage in it. Of course you are and do, as everyone is and does. Get over it.)
Despite secular and religious strictures against it –Deuteronomy calls it “an abomination” — gossip is as wide-spread and ineradicable as the shark or the cucaracha. It’s everywhere and for all time because people take pleasure in it. Perhaps the main reason the Garden of Eden just wouldn’t do as a permanent arrangement is that there was no third person for Adam and Eve to talk about. (OK, there was God, but talking about Him carried risks.)
And talking about third persons, usually not to number three’s advantage, is the essence of gossip, an activity that can range from harmlessly amusing to vicious and damaging. Throughout Epstein’s well-researched book, which parses gossip from the court of Louis XIV (a viper’s nest, as most royal courts were) to the contemporary supermarket checkout line, Epstein examines various definitions of gossip but never settles on one. But as we learn, gossip is far too multi-faceted — way too many forms of it, way too many motivations for engaging in it — for one definition to serve.
Gossipers can range from the harmless busybody, to those just wishing to be in the know, all the way to the ambitious man or women on a mission or with an axe to grind. In the corporate hive, gossip may be the most reliable form of information available. And universities, Epstein says, “are unimaginable without gossip.”
In the contemporary 24-hour news cycle many gossipers-for-hire are paid through a vocation known as journalism. The distinction between gossip and news grows ever murkier. Epstein treats this evolution in a chapter titled, “Whores of Information,” Oscar’s Wilde’s jaundiced expression for reporters, and probably a bit an exaggeration. But the honest reporter can hardly deny, as Epstein puts it, that much of his job is to “spy and pry, to find out things that people, for various reasons, would rather not have revealed.” (For one with several hash marks in the reporting service, I plead no contest.)
Epstein concedes his interest in gossip comes from the fact that, for all the insincere objections to it from various poseurs, he has always enjoyed it. In various “Diary” entries he gives us examples of his own indulgence in the form:
My own preference as a recipient of gossip is for items that feature the comedy of human behavior, that is, of people trying to live up to their own probably too high pretentions. The best gossip for me is that which confirms my own views of the essential fraudulence of certain people, especially people who present themselves as a touch — and usually more than a touch — more moral than the rest of us.
Along with the history, the analysis, and the sheer fun of the subject, Epstein also names names. He gives details of some of the more famous gossip, fair and foul, about the famous. So that it will be Epstein’s phone ringing and not mine, I’ll not repeat the names, but Gossip readers may well be as entertained as I was to learn that a certain, now departed, historical figure was said to be “the best fellatrix in Europe.”
The erudite but accessible, serious but not solemn tone of Gossip is that which readers encounter in Epstein’s essay collections — A Line Out for a Walk, Once More Around the Block, Narcissus Leaves the Pool, In a Cardboard Belt — and in his three fine short story collections. As always, the Epstein humor is in full view.
So we may add gossip to the list of subjects that can be leaden in the hands of sociologists, professors, and other credentialed bores, but magic in the hands of a writer like Epstein, gifted in sifting the rich and amusing place our world is.
But all of this is just between you and me. Don’t breathe a word of it.
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