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Joseph Epstein Dishes on 'Gossip'

Witty writer tackles idle chatter

Nov. 15, 2011
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The New World Dictionary defines gossip as “a person who chatters or repeats idle talk and rumors, especially about the private affairs of others,” and “to be a gossip by indulging in idle talk about others.”

Joseph Epstein's new book, Gossip (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is laid out into chapters illustrating the various forms of this beloved activity. Filled with wit and widely researched, Epstein's essay notes that not all gossip is for the purpose of hurting people. It can also be enormously entertaining. One example is a politician notable for his public stance on conservative family values who gets caught in the company of a young man; despite the irrefutable damage to his future in politics, there is something entertaining in this situation. It might even be a gossip morality tale.

Faux pas in gossip are the bane of celebrities who often become victims of such talk. Despite the fact that there may not be a shred of truth in statements made about celebrities, in the end a rumor can follow them like a verbal wraith. Even the clergy are prone to engage in gossip with their flocks. How many confessions or pastoral discussions have passed into some third party's ear?

The press is rife in its use of gossip. Epstein quotes Oscar Wilde (often the brunt of rumor) that journalism is organized gossip—its practitioners are “whores of information.” The author notes that while all religions claim to abhor gossip, Judaism has especially codified this abhorrence. The book was written tongue in cheek, and there is a great deal of wisdom in Epstein's approach of using humor to teach what is or is not proper in the world of gossip. Gossip will find a place on the shelf along with his other, not unrelated books, Envy and Snobbery. His advice? Always remember to check your sources if you decide to delve into the world of gossip


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