Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit
By Joseph Epstein
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pages, $25
The only book I would rather review than a treatise on gossip is a history of pornography: Both promise all the thrill of the source material with only half the need to smuggle the book inside a magazine on the subway. Or perhaps the book-inside-mag is passé? (It’s hard to spy on a Kindle or iPad.) In any event, take a prurient topic and put it at a scholarly remove, and you can experience all the fun, and none of the shame, in full frontal hardcover.
My excitement for “Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit” was tempered, however, by my worry that author Joseph Epstein would not quite deliver the goods. Epstein, former editor of the quarterly magazine The American Scholar and author of, among others, the 2002 book “Snobbery: The American Version,” is a rather prim writer; I would say that his sentences wear suspenders, but he might insist they wear braces. And while he is not a cultural conservative of the present-hating New Criterion school, still less of the Michael Medved right-wing-moustache school, Epstein is a fogey; his enthusiasms are antique. When I draw near an Epstein byline, I am always afraid a classic film is about to be recommended to me.
But in the end, I thoroughly enjoyed “Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit,” an engrossing little enquiry, part history and part cultural musing. Although Epstein never stops meandering long enough to identify the core of his argument, a fair summary would be that gossip is a delicious human vice, one that people should most certainly indulge, but in moderation. The problem, as Epstein sees it, is that the old, intimate style of gossip, practiced in the neighborhood, or within the royal court, or among friends and frenemies — a style that required tact, discretion and wit — has been replaced in the age of mass communications by the crude violation of tabloid and Internet gossip.
As an example of the old gossip, Epstein offers a chapter on the Duc de Saint-Simon, Louis XIV’s court yenta. Saint-Simon was the most discreet gossip imaginable. He arrived at Versailles in 1691, at the age of 16, and three years later he began taking careful notes on everything he saw and heard. He wrote up his memoirs after leaving court; they were published quite posthumously, in 1788, making Saint-Simon, as Epstein admits, less a gossip than a gossip historian.
But Saint-Simon was a great aesthete of gossip and, according to Epstein, “deplored raucous, scattershot, motiveless gossip, or so he claimed. His own gossip tended to be subtle, well aimed, and (he would assure you) never out of line because of the purity of his own motives.”