In the “Lives of. . .” books I have a divine time working with Kathryn Hewitt, the artist. Each book’s 20 biographies (41 in the latest volume in the series, Lives of the Presidents) showcase the famous and the (mostly) dead in a new and unusually honest light. We emphasize neighbors, relationships, odd habits, hair, underwear, and food.

The Madness

Now, what is that word for chatty talk about other people? Gossip—the answers to what inquiring minds really want to know! Luckily for us, kids are born with inquiring minds. It’s one of their most endearing, most identifying characteristics. I love the nosiness of kids—there’s so much to tell them, so much that can be put in a new way. The “Lives of.. .“ books, while scrupulously researched, are a sort of People magazine kind of nonfiction, a format that doesn’t have to be read sequentially

Yes, they are like gossip in disguise— an intoxication that cuts across age groups in appeal. As Will Rogers said, “The only time people dislike gossip is when you gossip about them.”

The Meaning

Gossip has an appalling reputation. In olden (pre-feminist) days, men used women’s talent at chat against them, deeming them morally and intellectually inferior. Even now, gossip can have overtones of mean-spiritedness and cattiness, and it certainly can be frivolous.

But gossip is getting legitimate, losing its luridness. It was John F. Kennedy who admitted, “All history is gossip.”

Steven Pinker, in How the Mind Works (Norton, 1997), goes further: “Gossip is a favorite pastime in all human societies because knowledge is power.”

And in a recent book called Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (Harvard, 1996), Robin Dunbar reports that people spend about two-thirds of any conversation gossiping. In fact, gossip is so important to the brain that without it, he believes that humans would never have bothered to learn how to talk in the first place. That’s right—contrary to most theories about the origins of language, this one holds that language evolved to allow us to gossip. We invented language so that we could talk about other people. We get endorphins from it, call it juicy, use it as a vital tool for understanding others and establishing connections, become addicted to it in national orgies (think 0J, Monica, and on and on). Gossip keeps us alive.

To think that Kathryn Hewitt— whose watercolor portraits are the delicious visual equivalent of gossip—and I have all this time been furthering the evolution of a sublime human function!

Kids, whose language development is in its earliest stages, need gossip, too. What might be escapism or  voyeurism in adults is for a child intellectual curiosity, and thus a thing to nourish.

As a writer of biographies, I hope to help establish a context for our cultural heritage. Young kids may consider Beethoven a dog (from the movies), or know Leonardo and Michelangelo only as
Mutant Ninja Turtles, or somehow see all literature as written by one anonymous, dead author. But, at some point in their lives, they will encounter the great names for real. With gossip as bait, kids are willing to get on familiar other terms with Mozart and Mark Twain, dying to know more about Edgar Allan Poe or Georgia O’Keeffe, and able to comprehend the differences between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

In truth, the ultimate point of the “Lives of. . .“ books is to empower kids with knowledge, by humanizing the giants of world history.

from “Writing Biographies for Inquiring Minds,” by Kathleen Krull, Book Links, May 1999. Used with permission.