The celebrated essayist anatomizes our sociocultural obsession with gossip, delineating the ways that it can bring people together as well as tear them apart.
Having previously devoted books to such universal human institutions as ambition, snobbery, envy and friendship, Epstein (The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff, 2010, etc.) dives headfirst into the often murky waters of that most reviled form of communication: gossip. In a series of alternately humorous and disturbing examples drawn from his own personal experience, along with the published memoirs and correspondence of the literati, he explores the subtle gradations that gossip can take, from chitchat intended for a small, intimate audience to the sort of defamation that destroys reputations. The latter, Epstein argues, currently threatens not only to debase the politicians and celebrities on whom it often centers but also to significantly erode society’s respect for privacy itself. Naturally, the author lays the much of the blame for this on the Internet, bolstering his case with persuasive examples—blogs, social-networking posts and “news” websites that charge both public and private figures with bad behavior, essentially reversing the “innocent until proven guilty” dictum by spreading accusations and speculation at lightning speed. While Epstein’s ruminations on how we became a nation of gawkers ring painfully true, it is his willingness to analyze delectable tidbits regarding authors, intellectuals and other luminaries that enlivens the narrative. The author rounds out the three major sections of the book with portraits of legendary gossips through the ages, including an especially scathing treatment of news anchor Barbara Walters.
Amusing and serious in equal measures, Epstein grants readers the pleasurable company of a master observer of humanity’s foibles.