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October 19, 1986|ALEX RAKSIN

Gossip, Patricia Meyer Spacks (University of Chicago: $10.95). However favored it might be on television or in daily banter, gossip is usually dismissed as trifling, sensational, or, in the case of Shakespeare's Othello, malevolent; hardy against the most formidable opponent, Othello was nevertheless destroyed by words. Kierkegaard was even more critical, writing that "talkativeness (is) afraid of the silence which reveals its emptiness." Patricia Sparks, chair of the English department at Yale University, counters some of these popular conceptions in this witty and unique 1985 work, arguing that gossip can indeed be good for you. Paging through literature (its narrative frame, she writes, is similar to the oral narrative used by gossipers), she points out gossip's most important role: It gives voice to our desires, then directs them toward socially acceptable channels. Stories about a young woman's unbridled fantasies, for instance, inevitably end with her social ostracism. And so, ultimately, gossip's role is conservative: delineating frontiers, specifically an "outside" inhabited by those talked about, and an "inside . . . inhabited by the temporarily secure territory of the talkers." Nevertheless, Sparks emphasizes that gossip is more contemplative than Kierkegaard might have realized: It can help people gain intimacy, reflect about themselves, express wonder and uncertainty and locate certainties.

Voices of the Old Sea, Norman Lewis (Penguin: $5.95). Troubled by the years he spent in combat, the author "sought out the familiar" after World War II. Failing to find it in his native England, which was bustling with post-war development, he spent the next three summers in a "vanished time and place," a small village on the coast of Spain. Ancient Celto-Iberian ritual and beliefs still dominated village life during the author's first season, but, by the second year, the village's very survival was threatened by dwindling fish harvests and new harvest technology from the cities. The fishermen had no recourse, Norman Lewis writes, because "the sea (was their) only employer." By the third summer, however, the villagers had found prosperity because of a growing tourist trade. The interlopers brought with them new customs, and, soon, even one of the village elders was seen wearing leather shoes--the first of many cultural taboos that were to be violated. While Lewis' quiet account of changes in the village resembles an elegy, most of the villagers accept their new prosperity in good spirits, insisting that whatever happens, they won't be carried away by ephemeral tides: "We shall remain," says one, "listening to the voices of the old sea."

Socialism for Beginners, text by Anna Paczuska, illustrations by Sophie Grillet; Zen for Beginners, text by Judith Blackstone and Zoran Josipovic, illustrations by Naomi Rosenblatt (Writers & Readers: $6.95 each). It's no wonder that the progressives behind the "Writers and Readers Series" turned to documentary cartoons to "reach the proles," for cartoons have long been the print media's most populist form of communication. The initial efforts in the series--introductions to Freud, Einstein and Marx, among others--were particularly successful, turning a potential weakness of daffy images (the tendency to trivialize and condescend) into a strength (illustrations were used to order and regulate the flow of ideas). Unfortunately, "Socialism for Beginners" doesn't follow in the "Writers and Readers" tradition, taking its heritage, instead, from political pamphleteering. The authors are hesitant to contrast competing ideologies, failing to chronicle socialism's recent setbacks in the West, for instance. "Zen for Beginners" is more successful, offering a broad overview of ideas in Oriental art, literature and architecture, and illustrating their effect on writers in the West, such as Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder.

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