- - Friday, December 9, 2011

By Joseph Epstein
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25, 256 pages

Surely I’m not the only reader amazed at how downright boring professors, assorted “experts” and too often even the reverend clergy can be when addressing some of the more basic forces in our lives.

Not so Joseph Epstein, who in more than 20 books has combined wisdom with delight in parsing such vital human projects and weaknesses as “Snobbery” (2002), “Envy” (2003) and “Friendship” (2006). In his latest volume, Mr. Epstein performs the same service for gossip, an officially reviled activity that almost everyone engages in and enjoys. Disregard all protestations to the contrary.

The author admits up front that he has always enjoyed gossip and goes on to analyze the attractions this activity has held for all of human history. In several of his “diary” sections, he gives some fine and amusing examples of his own high-toned gossip.

When Mr. Epstein is held to his Final Accounting, the charge and specification of boring his readers will not be brought against him. In fact, the now-deceased wit William F. Buckley Jr. called Mr. Epstein “the wittiest writer alive” in his review of “Snobbery.”

Mr. Epstein’s style, as shown in these one-subject treatments as well as in his several essay and short-story collections, is learned but accessible, serious but not solemn, humorous but not trivial. Those who have sampled Mr. Epstein’s short work in the Weekly Standard, Commentary, the Wall Street Journal, the New Criterion, the New York Times, et al., know this already.

Mr. Epstein divides his analysis and historical treatment of gossip into 18 chapters in three sections. He takes readers from the court of Louis XIV, where the Duc de Saint Simon established the first NCAA record for dishing on other courtiers, down to the contemporary 24-hour news cycle, where much of what passes for political coverage is in fact gossip. Mr. Epstein profiles some of the well-known official gossips, including Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, then demonstrates how recent evolutions in journalism make it difficult for a gossip columnist to make an honest, if tawdry, buck.

Mr. Epstein shows the upside of gossip. In some corporations, it’s the most reliable source of information. And how much worse would we all be without fear of being talked about? He also demonstrates how it can trivialize. Barbara Walters and Tina Brown get the back of Mr. Epstein’s hand in this regard. Those who didn’t already know it will learn the meaning of the Yiddish word “yenta.”

Gossip can be harmless fun, but it can also be corrosive. Motives for engaging in it can range from mere amusement to a simple desire to appear in the know to character assassination. In fact, gossip comes in so many forms, Mr. Epstein never arrives at a single definition of it.

In chapters on political and celebrity gossip, readers will encounter some of the usual suspects: Princess Diana, Monica Lewinsky, JFK, Tiger Woods, Liz Taylor and Mel Gibson among others, as well as figures from the most distant past. We see what Lillian Ross did for and to Ernest Hemingway. And we read of the gossip sheet published by serious Founding Father Ben Franklin.

Mr. Epstein goes into detail on some of the gossip about household names, some of the stories doubtless true, others questionable. In this he’s never prurient, though some of this stuff runs pretty close to bawdy (a better thing). So I’ll leave readers to enjoy these in private.

“Gossip” is well-researched, but also discursive in the style of Mr. Epstein’s familiar essays. By the end of the book, readers will know a good deal more about an activity Deuteronomy calls an “abomination,” but looks to be with us for the duration, and will have had a good time in the process.

Mr. Epstein is an intelligent man and careful writer who loves life, observes it closely, but is never completely taken in by it. This is why “Gossip” contains the things that have made his work so agreeable to so many readers: the acute insight, the apt observation, sound analysis, irony without angst, the playful treatment and humor, from gentle to laugh-out-loud, that can come at any moment.

• Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa, Fla.