Friday, May 31, 2013

The funny side of assassination

Bill Fitzhugh's 1996 novel Pest Control is so much fun it's a wonder more people haven't read it -- or even heard about it. But then I always wondered why Donald E. Westlake's comic caper novels were not major bestsellers. Pest Control may not be quite as funny or as good as Westlake's best work, but it's close.

The story tells about a professional pest exterminator named Bob Dillon whose great idea is to breed a new bug that will kill other bugs, as if property owners will pay good money to try to get rid of their roaches and termites by inviting even bigger, nastier insects into their homes and businesses. Through a series of events that almost seem plausible as Fitzhugh tells the story, Bob gets a reputation as another kind of professional exterminator, a hitman. Pretty soon most of the other top assassins in the world are coming to New York City to kill him, both to eliminate one of their competitors and to collect a large bounty placed on his head by a South American dictator.

One of these assassins is Klaus, a man who entered the business to make the world a better place. He kills only people who deserve to be killed, and when he realizes Bob is nothing more than the harmless exterminator he claims to be, he comes to the rescue. Klaus doesn't save the day by himself, however. With his knowledge of New York City and bugs, Bob proves very resourceful against the armed killers, too.

Decades ago someone like Don Knotts or Tim Conway would have been chosen to play Bob Dillon in a film version of Pest Control. That casting would not have been quite right, however. Bob isn't so much a klutzy, mindless comic character as he is an ordinary Joe with a one-track mind. He thinks only about bugs. In a flashback we get to read a love letter he wrote to his sweetheart back in college. The letter is filled with bug metaphors. Mary married him anyway, and in the story she leaves him when their rent is overdue and Bob refuses to rely on dependable, if dangerous, chemicals to do his job.

Mary returns to Bob by the end of the novel. She may be the story's true hero.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Pubs for readers

There used to be a bar in my town called Third Base. Under the name were the words: "Last stop before home." For American bars, that's just about as original as it gets. Most U.S. bars have fairly simple names on the order of Joe's Place.

In Great Britain and Ireland, almost every pub seems to be named something so unique tourists are tempted to stop and take pictures of the signs, and many of them yield to that temptation. I know I did when I was there in 2005.

At a used book sale in Clearwater, Fla., several weeks ago, I found the 1994 edition of The Wordsworth Dictionary of Pub Names, and I've been leafing through it ever since. Here you can find descriptions of such places as Fiery Fred, named for a cricket bowler, Spanking Roger and the Fox and Flower Pot. Those pubs sound like they'd be fun even before the drinking starts.

I thought it might be interesting to sort out some of the British pubs with literary names. There are many more than I expected, so this list is by no means complete.

Pubs named for writers: Andrew Marvell, Boswell Arms, Charles Dickens, Conan Doyle, Doctor Johnson, Edgar Wallace, George Eliot, Henry Fielding, John Clare, Jules Verne, Keats, Mark Twain, Milton's Head, Macaulay Arms, Robert Burns, Rupert Brooke, Samuel Pepys, Samuel's (Samuel Johnson), Shakespeare, Sheridan, Sir Richard Steele, Sir Walter Scott, Trollope Arms, Yeats.

Pubs named for literary works: Ancient Mariner, Antiquary, Beau Geste, Black Beauty, Black Tulip (novel by Alexandre Dumas), Bleak House, Blue Lagoon, Canterbury Arms, Goldfinger, Good Companions (novel by J.B. Priestly), Greenmantle, Hustler, Ivanhoe, Kenilworth Tavern, Lorna Doone, Magician's Nephew, Moby Dick, Moon and Sixpence, Moonraker, Moonstone, Our Mutual Friend, Rubaiyat, Scarlet Pimpernel, Scholar Gipsy (poem by Matthew Arnold), Shropshire Lad, Three Men in a Boat, Trumpet Major, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Vicar of Wakefield, Waverly, Walrus and Carpenter, Witch and the Wardrobe, Wuthering Heights, Westward Ho! (novel by Charles Kingsley).

Pubs named for literary characters: Alan Breck (from Kidnapped), Artful Dodger, Barnaby Rudge, Betsy Trotwood, Bilbo Baggins, Brigadier Gerard (a famous racehorse but also a character of Arthur Conan Doyle), Cheshire Cat, Dandie Dinmont, David Copperfield, Eliza Doolittle, Gunga Din's Colonial Inn, Hobbit, Hornblower, Jack and Jill, Jeannie Deans, Jekyll and Hyde, John Bunyan, John Gilpan (from a poem by WIlliam Cowper), John Jorrocks, Lady of Shalott, Long John Silver, Minstrel Boy, Miranda (from The Tempest), Mister Micawber, Moriarty's, Mother Hubbard, Nickleby's, Oliver Twist, Peggotty's, Pickwick, Robinson Crusoe, Rob Roy, Rumples (named for Rumpelstiltskin), Sherlock Holmes, Tom Sawyer's Tavern, Wee Willie Winkie, White Knight, Widow of Bath.

Other: Bookbinders Arms, Conquering Hero (from a line in a poem by Thomas Morell), Dangling Prussian (a name for an inn suggested by Sherlock Holmes), Mortal Man (from a line by Shakespeare).

I'd love to walk into any of those places and hoist a pint of Diet Dr Pepper.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A writer's masquerade

During the 20th century, a number of female writers chose to write under sexually ambiguous names. Harper Lee, Isak Dinesen, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers and Andre Norton, among others, didn't actually pretend to be men, but if biased publishers and readers began reading their work under the wrong impression, where was the harm?

Alice Sheldon, however, chose to go whole hog. She saw the name Tiptree on a jar of jam and decided to write her science fiction stories under the name of James Tiptree Jr., keeping her true identity a secret from virtually everyone for a number of years. As biographer Julie Phillips tells in her book James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, she flirted with Ursula K. Le Guin and other women by mail, while pretending to be one of the boys with Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick and other men in the science fiction community. She fooled them all.

Everyone knew Tiptree was a pseudonym, but interest in who the writer really was became all the greater because his stories were so original, like nothing science fiction fans had never read before. Because Tiptree had a post office box in McClean, Va., some speculated the writer might be a CIA agent. (Both Alli Sheldon and her husband had, in fact, once worked for the CIA.) Someone even thought James Tiptree Jr. might really be Henry Kissinger. A few thought the stories sounded a bit like the voice of a woman, but in other respects they were thoroughly manly.

The secret was revealed in the early 1970s when Tiptree let slip in letters that his mother had died, after previously disclosing she was a former African explorer living in Chicago. It was then a simple matter to check the obituaries in the Chicago papers, where it was found that author and world traveler Mary Hastings Bradley was survived by just one child, a daughter named Alice Sheldon.

Having lost the mask behind which she had written her startling stories, Sheldon's talent dried up, and she wrote only a few stories after that, most of them not very good.

Sheldon suffered from a manic-depressive personality, and she seemed to have conflicting identities within her throughout her life. Although happily married for a long time, she was sexually confused, never quite sure who or what she really was. She also also wrote science fiction as a woman under the name Racoona Sheldon, although these tales were not as well received as Tiptree's.

She had talked about suicide her entire life, and in 1987 she put a gun to her head after first killing her ailing husband.
 
The biography by Julie Phillips, published in 2006, is well worth reading whether or not one has ever read a James Tiptree Jr. short story.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Love in a name

Ralph Johns, a municipal judge in Mansfield, Ohio, for a number of years, had an understandable pet peeve. He hated being called Judge Jones. It's  amazing how easy it was to write "Judge Jones" when you were thinking "Judge Johns." I know because I did it once myself. I was an editorial writer at the time, and in one editorial I called him "Judge Jones," and the mistake survived copy editing.

The judge didn't seem to care what I wrote about him in the editorial, but he was incensed that I got his name wrong. I had no defense. I could only plead guilty and throw myself on the mercy of the court, although when it came to his name, Judge Johns showed little mercy.

One of my wife's nurses is named Kendalyne. She jokes about the variety of names she has been called and insists she will answer to "anything that begins with a K," but I suspect she is grateful whenever somebody gets her name right. Most of us are like that.

I feel compassion for anyone with a name that is hard to say, hard to spell or hard to remember. Imagine going through life having to repeat or spell one's name several times a day. Actually it's not that hard to imagine. I have a relatively simple surname -- Mapes -- but it causes difficulties frequently. I often get mail addressed to "Terry Mates" or "Terry Maples." A college history professor insisted my name had two syllables. I've learned a few tricks. When a restaurant hostess had trouble with my name, I told her, "Mapes, as in grapes." When our table was ready, I heard her announce over the speaker, "Mapes as in Grapes." More recently a woman on the phone couldn't figure out my name even when I spelled it for her. Finally I said, "It's like the Planet of the Mapes." She got it.

Even those with the most ordinary names can have problems. In the town where I live there were for many years two men of comparable age both named Smith. One was H. Wayne Smith. The other was Wayne C. Smith. Both men were doctors. Both lived on the same street. Both joined the same church. The confusion over their similar names continued for as long as both men lived, and probably for a good many years afterward.

I'm fond of the Dar Williams song It Happens Every Day, one line of which goes: "And the only word for love is everybody's name." Perhaps all of us, even crusty municipal judges, really do feel love whenever we see or hear our own names.

All we have to do to make this world a better place is to get those names right.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Learning history

"I've always felt that fiction is a perfect (and painless) way to learn history." -- Nancy Pearl in Book Lust to Go

Nancy Pearl has a point,  up to a point. Those boring history textbooks most of us had in high school and college probably did more to dim our interest in history than heighten it. Novels set in earlier times, however, can give us a feel for those times, teaching us (painlessly, as Pearl points out) more about history than we ever learned in school.

There is a problem with historical fiction, however. It's fiction. That is, what we're reading is not necessarily the way it really was. This is, of course, often the case with history books, too, but at least historians are making an attempt to get the history right. Novelists are mostly interested in telling a good story. When history suits them, they use it. When it doesn't, they change it to make their story better. The reader won't necessarily know the difference.

I've just finished reading Masterson, the terrific 1999 novel by Richard S. Wheeler. The story takes place mostly in 1919, when Bat Masterson, the legendary Western hero, is working as a newspaper columnist in New York City. One day Louella Parsons, who would one day become a legend herself, asks him to tell her about all the men he has killed. Masterson's legend has it that he killed dozens of men in Dodge City and elsewhere in the West. Nobody believes him, or wants to believe him, when he insists he killed just one man, and that was in self-defense.

And so Masterson and Emma, his common-law wife, board a train to confront the legend in the places where the legend was created. They find the West has changed dramatically in their years back East. In Dodge, it's as if Bat Masterson had never existed. That rough-and-tumble period of history has been officially wiped from the slate. The powers that be don't want it even mentioned. In Denver, officials not only remember Masterson but, on the basis of the dime novels written about his life, consider him an unsavory character and want him to get out of town as quickly as possible.

Bat and Emma get as far as Los Angeles, where they get reaquainted with a grumpy Wyatt Earp and make a movie with William S. Hart.

The novel has no flashbacks. It's just the story of an old man confronting his past, trying to figure out who he really is. This is wonderful historical fiction, but most of it isn't true. Although Masterson really was a newspaperman in New York late in his life (he was considered one of the top authorities on boxing at the time), he and Emma never actually took that train to revisit their old haunts in the West. That's pure fiction.

Wheeler offers some recommended reading at the end of his novel, history books and biographies, for readers who want the true story. Chances are, however, most readers will stop with the novel, and their knowledge of Bat Masterson will end there, too, just as in another era what most people knew about Bat Masterson ended with the Gene Barry television series that ran in the late '50s.

"When John Citizen feels the urge to read history, he goes to the novels of Kenneth Roberts or Margaret Mitchell, not to the histories of Professor this or Doctor that," the historian Samuel Eliot Morison once complained. He didn't blame readers. He blamed historians for not making history more interesting.

Today we are blessed with books by a variety of writers who do know how to make history interesting, including David McCullough, Simon Winchester, Laura Hillenbrand, Thomas Cahill, Candice Millard, Bill Bryson and Erik Larson. In many cases, they offer an even more perfect (and painless) way to learn history.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Real language

One of my frustrations during my 40-plus years in journalism was interviewing people who never seemed to finish their sentences. They would start saying something interesting, and I would already be thinking about what a great quote this was going to be, but then they would stop in the middle and move on to the next sentence, without finishing that one either. I always had to choose from among the following: 1) finish their sentences for them, 2) paraphrase their statements or 3) quote them accurately as speaking in incomplete sentences. I almost never picked Option 3. I thought it would make my sources sound stupid, even though they didn't sound stupid when you listened to them speak. They just seemed to be people who could think much faster than they could talk.

Listen to people  in conversation sometime, and you might be surprised by how many sentences are left unfinished. Yet somehow we always know what these people are saying.

This came to mind as I was meditating on something John McWhorter writes in What Language Is. McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, says that one of the things language is is oral. Language is more what we say than what we write. "You do not speak in letters," McWhorter says. "You speak in sounds."

Writing is more a representation of language than language itself, he argues. After all, human languages existed for thousands of years before writing was invented, and most languages still lack a written form. Yet they are still very much languages.

Even so, those of us who are literate tend to believe that writing, especially what we find in great literature, is the real deal, while our common, everyday speech is, in most cases, just a failed attempt to live up to the standard.

In Indonesia, McWhorter writes, this is taken to an extreme. Standard Indonesian used in writing is considered the nation's official language. Yet almost nobody, including intellectuals, actually speaks it. They speak a colloquial Indonesian that is among the easiest languages in the world to learn. In Indonesia, the language most residents speak is not even considered a language at all. It's just the way people talk.

We have not gone nearly that far in the English-speaking world, yet there are wide differences between how most of us talk and how we write. Our writing is usually more formal, more grammatically correct, less loaded with slang and profanity. When writing, we usually finish our sentences. Yet, to Professor McWhorter, real English is less what we write than what we say. Speech is how most of us communicate most of the time.

I find this a sobering idea. Could it possibly be true that in my efforts to clean up my sources' quotes, to put them into proper English, I was actually taking them out of "real English" and translating them into something else?

Friday, May 17, 2013

It's like Grand Central Station

There are two Grand Central stations in New York City, not just one. One of them is a post office. The other is a subway station. At neither can you catch an Amtrak train bound for Albany.

If you are like me, you have been hearing (and probably repeating) variations on the line "It's like Grand Central Station around here" all your life. The phrase brings to mind a busy train station, one that is synonymous with hustle and bustle. But the Grand Central we're thinking of isn't really a station at all. Its official name is Grand Central Terminal.

Whenever I leaf through The Christian Science Monitor, I always start at the back. That's because Ruth Walker's Verbal Energy column sits at the top of the penultimate page. In the March 18 issue, which I didn't pick up until this week, she writes about Grand Central Terminal, which marked its centennial earlier this year.

So what's the difference between a station and a terminal? A station, Walker explains, is "a stopping point along the way," while a terminal is the endpoint. The train lines all end at Grand Central, so that makes it a terminal, not a station.

We speak of terminal cancer and other terminal illnesses because there is no cure and no hope. It's the end of the line. We don't speak of less serious illnesses as stations, but I suppose we could. They may hold us back for a time, but then we get moving again.

Walker says station, meaning "regular stopping place," was first applied to coaches in 1797. Later its use spread to trains and buses. The English word terminus was coined in the 16th century, Walker writes, but later terminal became more common.

Reading the first chapter of Rhys Bowen's novel Murphy's Law this morning, I found this line: "If my ma had still been alive, she'd have said I asked for it, too -- always did have big ideas beyond my station and a mouth that was going to get me into trouble." We don't often hear references to one's "station in life" these days, thank goodness, but as used by Bowen's narrator and probably by most people who used the phrase in earlier times, it suggests not so much a stopping point along the way as a terminus.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Gossip as medical research

In my post on April 17 (Medicine on the frontier), I wondered how, in more primitive times, people learned that certain plants or certain compounds had medicinal qualities. "How did they discover the healing properties of things like cocoa butter, alum and slippery elm?" I asked. "How did someone learn to turn plants into medicines?" Not until after I finished my May 3 post (Gossip can save your life) did the answer come to me.

On May 3 I wrote about Jared Diamond's speculation in The World Until Yesterday that people in traditional hunter-gatherer cultures tend to be more talkative than those in modern societies because gossip is their only way of passing on vital information, information that might save their lives. This is how people learned to avoid dangers. Anything could be important, and so everything was talked about in great detail.

Later it came to me this would apply to medicines as well. If one person experimented with some concoction that seemed to relieve a stomachache or heal a sore, that information would be passed on. Others would try the same thing, perhaps with variations. Nothing could be written down if they had no written language, so the results of these experiments would have to be passed along through gossip and remembered by someone. Older people with long memories could have been valuable members of any tribe.

Then a couple of days ago I came across this line while reading State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: "They think this place is some sort of magical medicine chest, but for the most part the treatments here consist of poorly recorded gossip handed down throughout the ages from people who knew very little to people who know even less." The speaker in Patchett's novel  is Dr. Swenson, who has devoted her life to medical research in Amazonia.

With enough time, enough people and enough gossip, it was possible to make some notable medical discoveries. Many of the remedies found and passed on in this way are still in use today.

Even now many of us use gossip to pass along medical information, although in an age when reliable medical information is readily available through official sources, such gossip is probably not as helpful as it once was.

Monday, May 13, 2013

A fine new mystery

Alex Grecian's The Black Country, just out this month, is a terrific follow-up to The Yard, even if the premise at the beginning of the novel seems a bit weak. Inspector Walter Day, Sergeant Nevil Hammersmith and Dr. Bernard Kingsley supposedly comprise the Scotland Yard's Murder Squad, yet they are sent to the Black Country in the English Midlands to find three people -- a husband, wife and son -- who have been missing for a few days. This does turn into a murder case, but at the time the investigators are dispatched there is no hint of a murder, just some missing people. Would Scotland Yard really send its most elite team of detectives to a rural area to conduct a search? Couldn't lesser men handle such a chore?

It soon develops that these are the right men, after all. There is much going on here in addition to the missing family. Campbell, a large and mysterious stranger in town, appears to have something to hide. A sinister American with a rifle stalks the woods, trying to kill someone. The superstitious innkeeper tries to keep Day and Hammersmith from their search. Most of the townspeople are seriously ill. And this is a coal-mining own located directly above the mines that provide its livelihood. As a consequence, the whole village is sinking into the ground a few inches at a time.

The trio of detectives complement one another nicely. Day, whose wife is expecting their first child, shows compassion, extreme bravery and a mind that never stops working. Hammersmith is a big lug who is ill throughout most of the story, yet keeps chugging along, insisting he is fine. Kingsley is a master of early  forensic medicine, finding clues where most detectives in the 19th century would never think to look for them.

Grecian's story is complex enough to be interesting, without becoming convoluted. It moves at a fast pace and, with its brief chapters, seems much shorter than its 386 pages. Anyone who loves Victorian mysteries with lots of atmosphere will enjoy The Black Country.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Gathering places

What do you call that room in your home where you entertain visitors and where the family gathers after dinner? If you are an American, you probably call it the living room, although in many homes it may be called the family room or the TV room. Some homes have both a family (or TV) room that gets a lot of use and a living room that is kept in pristine condition for when guests stop by.

In different places and at different times, this room has gone by a number of different names. The English had a drawing room, which was actually the withdrawing room. After dinner, men would normally light up their cigars, while the ladies would withdraw to the drawing room to visit. After they finished smoking, the men would join them.

The French called their version of the drawing room the salon, which the English turning into saloon. Today both words are familiar in the United States, although neither is associated with the home. A salon is a place where women go for beauty treatments or to have their nails done. A saloon is a gathering place for drinking and gambling, usually associated with the Old West.

Then there is the parlor, which came from the French word parler, meaning "to speak." Bill Bryson says in At Home that parlor dates back to 1225, when it was originally a place where monks would go to talk. Later it became a room in the home where people would conduct conversations. The word seems old-fashioned today when mentioned in the context of the home, but we still speak of beauty parlors, tattoo parlors and massage parlors, all places where conversation is secondary.

Other terms such as sitting room and lounge have also been used for that part of the home where people go for an enjoyable evening together.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Books for show

I noticed a shelf of new books hadn't been in the kitchen when I was there before. I saw they was The Complete Works of Charles Dickens. 'Have you read all those?' I said. He said he hadn't bought them to read: he had seen them advertised in a newspaper, and thought would look nice on his wall. -- The Book of Ebenezer LePage by G.B. Edwards

I try to avoid judging people by the covers of their books, but it can be a hard temptation to resist. Whenever I am in another person's home, I always seem to gravitate to any bookshelves that may be in sight. Books often say something about their owners.

Parents may have children's books and not much else. Some people have only a few of their college textbooks,  suggesting that they haven't opened a book since. Others have a lot of Chicken Soup for the Soul books or books focused on a particular subject of interest, such as World War II or wildflowers. Many people have nothing but bestsellers on their shelves, suggesting that they read only what everybody else is reading. Older people often have bestsellers from 20, 30 or even 50 years ago.

A number of years ago I served on a committee charged with finding a new pastor for our church, and I found myself in the home of one of our candidates. The books in his living room, which for all I knew at the time could have belonged to his wife, were impressive, suggesting a person with broad tastes in reading. We weren't disappointed when we chose him as our pastor.

Least impressive are those books which seem to exist only for display. Like the collection of Charles Dickens books owned by the character in the G.B. Edwards novel, they are there to impress visitors. They are there as a decorating device, like wallpaper or a vase of flowers.

The May issue of National Geographic Traveler contains a photograph of the book-lined café in the Drake Hotel in Toronto. Except for a few stray books that some guest might actually want to read, such as World's Best Science Fiction, most of books on the shelves seem to be multi-volume sets selected only because they look nice and take up a lot of room. It's hard to imagine any visitor to the café actually taking down one of these reference books to read. To be read is obviously not why they are there.

The books in the living rooms of some homes are much like this. They are clearly there for show. It seems unlikely that anyone has ever read them or ever will.

In his book Biblioholism, Tom Raabe satirizes those who buy books only to impress others, to give visitors the impression they have actually read them. Rather than buying sets of books or classics in expensive editions, he suggests taking the trouble to acquire books that will make the right impression. He advises the following:

"A  volume or two by authors who have only one name (Thucycdides, Epictetus, Juvenal, etc.)

"Books with impressive titles that give onlookers the feeling that if they don't recognize the title, they at least should "Leviathan, Critique of Pure Reason, The Varieties of Religious Experience, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, etc.).

"A book or two that mark you as your own thinker, cut apart from the herd (something by a little-known Bulgarian novelist, or the musings of some obscure Portuguese poet -- in Portuguese).

"A couple of books that most people have heard of, but don't have the guts to tackle (Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, etc.).

"A few Viking Contemporaries or other design paperbacks to announce one's place on the cutting edge of fiction."

I hate to admit it, but if I saw this selection of books displayed in your living room, I would be impressed. Of course, I would be more impressed if I saw you actually reading a book, any book.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Gossip can save your life

"The hope for informed gossip is that there are distinctive patterns in the errors people make." -- Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Writing in The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond observes that people who live in traditional societies tend to be nonstop talkers. We've all known people who can't seem to stop talking whenever there is anyone else within earshot. People in hunter-gatherer societies all seem to be that way. Diamond says they talk endlessly about everything and anything. He recalls listening to men having a long conversation about nothing but sweet potatoes. When these people happen to wake up in the middle of the night, they immediately begin talking and don't stop until they fall back to sleep. Every little detail of their lives is discussed and dissected. Diamond wondered why this is so.

He concluded this nonstop conversation must be for a reason. And that reason, he thinks, is self-protection. People in traditional societies live dangerous lives. Their life expectancy is only about 50, and many of them will die from diseases, accidents or homicides. Their chatter may serve to keep them alive longer. The conversation of women when they are out gathering food, for example, alerts wild animals to their presence and may prevent someone from being bitten by a creature caught by surprise.

Then there is the reason suggested by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Gossip may reveal "patterns in the errors people make." When one's life depends upon sweet potatoes, it becomes necessary to know everything there is to know about them. If a member of the group becomes ill, it may be helpful to know what that person was doing before the illness or what treatment may have helped with the recovery. Any detail, no matter how seemingly insignificant, could be important. It could indicate a pattern of errors to avoid.

Diamond says the practice of women everywhere to talk about the men in their lives helps to protect them from making wrong choices with potentially dangerous men. Hearing about the mistakes other women have made helps them make better choices.

Even office gossip, Kahneman suggests, can promote self-protection. How many workers may have been spared a poor career move or an ill-advised office romance just by listening to the chatter around a water cooler?

At the very least, listening to gossip lets us know what kinds of things others like to gossip about, and this can serve as a cautionary tale for avoiding those kinds of behaviors ourselves.