Over the years Joseph Epstein has turned his keen eyes and pen to broad subjects with which all of us are familiar — snobbery, friendship, envy, ambition — so it should come as no surprise that he now addresses himself to gossip. This tantalizing human activity no doubt can be traced back to Adam and Eve — who presumably gossiped about God — and today is so much with us as a commercial enterprise that even yetis on their Himalayan peaks surely have People magazine airmailed in every week and read the Daily Beast on their iPhones.

Epstein, an old-fashioned and conservative man, predictably (and correctly) finds gossip in its present manifestations distasteful, but he is critical without being censorious. He clearly enjoys gossip as much as the next person, and in the opening pages of “Gossip” he feeds the reader a number of tidbits, most of which unfortunately cannot be published in a family newspaper. This one can:

“Someone recently told me . . . that a gynecologist told him that when his patient Elizabeth Taylor came in for a minor surgical procedure she brought along security men to make sure that all her pubic hair, some of which needed to be shaved, would be swept up and properly disposed of, lest any of the nurses or orderlies on the job attempted to scoop it up and offer it for sale on eBay. This story feels mightily like gossip, yet I do not feel the least disloyalty in passing it along; instead I feel myself merely lapsing into wretched bad taste in retelling it. I also feel that, in the current age, it is probably a true story.”

Indeed, the story is classic gossip, because telling it entails several of the most basic motives behind gossip. It enables the gossiper “to do dirt to the person he is gossiping about.” It entails “sheer jolly prurience.” It presents the gossiper as “up to the moment, in the know.” By no means least, it reminds us that “part of the delight of gossip, after all, is, to use an old-fashioned word, its naughtiness.” Another good old-fashioned word for it is mischievousness. Both words have almost nothing to do with evil and a great deal to do with fun.

’Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit’ by Joseph Epstein (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Whether gossip in its most common contemporary forms really is fun is, I suppose, a matter of definition and taste. Much as I enjoy salacious stories and unpublishable tidbits, I am at one with Epstein in finding nothing interesting about the “personalities” and “celebrities” who are prime fodder for the gossip machinery in print and on-line. Epstein, who has read almost everything and seems to remember it all, for once trips up. He cites some rather lame comments by John Podhoretz about the “inexhaustible maw” of the gossip industry but misses Nora Ephron’s defining words on the subject, published fully three-and-a-half decades ago: “The celebrity pool has expanded in order to provide names to fill the increasing number of column inches currently devoted to gossip; this is my own pet theory, and I use it to explain all sorts of things, one of whom is Halston.”

The gossip that most interests me, and apparently Epstein as well, is gossip either about people whom I know or about people whom I do not know but who move more or less in my own circle. Working at home as I have for nearly four decades, I must await gifts from those on the outside. A few years back, when my wife was still this newspaper’s book-review editor, her return from the office each evening was occasion not merely for the pleasure of her company but for the gossip she regularly brought home. Now that we both work at home, the pleasure level is higher but the gossip level, alas, is deplorably low.

This is private gossip, gossip in its purest form. “Other people is the world’s most fascinating subject,” Epstein says, and though other people’s money runs it a close second, he’s right. Yes, “talk is possible about the great issues and events and questions,” but let’s be honest about it, such talk quickly palls: “So much easier, so much more entertaining, to talk about the decaying marriage of an acquaintance, the extravagant pretensions of in-laws, the sexual braggadocio of a bachelor friend. Most gossip, or most of the best gossip, is about dubious if not downright reprehensible behavior. The best of it is about people with whom one has a direct acquaintance. Served with a dash of humor it can be awfully fine stuff, even if one has never met the person being gossiped about.” Over the years, though, gossip has become a far larger phenomenon:

“The history of gossip has never been written . . . but if one were to sketch it out quickly, gossip would begin as an intimate and personal act most often carried on between two persons; then, with the advent of the printing press, it soon became public, with men and women earning their living discovering and purveying gossip to a mass audience, which of course continues in our day; the appetite for public gossip having been established, purveyors of it were never found to be in short supply, and in recent decades they have been immensely aided by the spread of cable television and the advent of the Internet. As the means, the technologies, of gossip have widened, so, naturally enough, has its influence.”

There are now more professional purveyors of gossip than can be counted, but “one of the great editorial entrepreneurs of our time and a maestra of modern gossip” is Tina Brown, who in her various incarnations as editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Talk and, now, the Daily Beast, has over and over again proved “her strong sense of what people want to know and her ability to produce it.” Epstein declines to get on his high horse about her, but his comments are devastating all the same. He points out the “repeating pattern” in her career: “She enlivens the institutions she works for, adding greatly to their circulation, and while they lose money, she gains reputation” and, of course, the inside track on the next juicy job to come along. Again to quote at length:

“Her great skill has been to encourage a fundamental unseriousness in her readers. The serious after all requires thoughtful effort, even some brooding on subjects; on occasion it forces one to take painful, usually moral positions; and sometimes, yes, it can be quite boring. Tina Brown peddles entertainment, which is not against the law, but ought to be recognized for what it is: distraction. Master at psyching out the Zeitgeist, she has become very much part of that same Zeitgeist, the purest type we have of the contemporary journalist, a woman whose goal, although she may not know it, is the excruciatingly boring state where everything is merely interesting and nothing is finally important.”

For much of his insights into Tina Brown, Epstein relied on Judy Bachrach’s “richly gossipy” book about her and her husband, Harold Evans, “Harry and Tina Come to America” (2001). This I have just now read and hugely enjoyed, but it’s something of a surprise that Epstein seems to have missed Philip Norman’s naughty roman a clef about the celebrated couple, “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” (1995), one of my favorite novels of recent years for, among other reasons, its sheer naughtiness. As Epstein says, “Speculation on character, curiosity about other worlds, an interest in social status, the unveiling of secrets, nice discriminations, revelations of secret motivations, moral judgments – so many of the constituent parts of gossip are also often at play in novels.” He is writing, of course, about literary novels about fictitious characters, but when those characters are thinly veiled depictions of those whom we know all too well in the public arena and whom we find, on the whole, thoroughly dislikable, the gossip — like the fun — is all the juicier.


The Untrivial Pursuit

By Joseph Epstein

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 242 pp. $25