The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries -- Marilyn Johnson

I apologize for not posting yesterday.  It was my fault.  The Internet was working, I had time, I had access.  But.  I also had a new obsession.  I spent every free moment reading obituaries.

I also blathered about The Dead Beat to anyone who came within fifteen feet of me.  (Poor them.)  I wish I had a couple of cases full -- I'd just hand it out on the street.

You may have realized -- I loved this book a whole lot.

Marilyn Johnson covers the difference between American and British-style obits, news (famous people) vs. egalitarian (just plain folks), she interviews current (and former) editors of most of the major newspapers in New York and London.  She tells story after story about the big, big personalities behind the obits.  There are more obituary excerpts than you can shake a stick at -- some made me laugh out loud, some made me tear up.

While I was blathering yesterday, one of my co-workers asked the obvious question -- "Yes, Leila (you freak), but WHY would you WANT to read obituaries?"  My answer?  Because if they're done well, they're just like very short stories.  And there are new ones EVERY DAY!

If you have any interest whatsoever in obituaries, obituary writers or obituary writing, you will like this book.  Likewise, if you're interested in different methods of storytelling, journalism, history or trivia, you'll like this book. 

Re: trivia:  I suspect that reading obits regularly will up my Jeopardy! scores.  For instance:

Carly Simon probably wrote "You're So Vain" not about James Taylor or Warren Beatty or Mick Jagger, but about the dissipated eccentric William Donaldson, who left her "when she was still quite naive."  Donaldson wrote wonderful satirical books, but he also ran through several fortunes, pimped, and enjoyed crack cocaine and the date-rape drug Rohypnol (he liked to use it on himself).  "It's such a nuisance," the Daily Telegraph quoted him in his obit.  "The trouble is, it wipes your memory.  You have to video yourself to appreciate just what a good time you had."

At the end of the book, Johnson includes an extensive bibliography as well as listing many of the websites she monitored during her research.  (Which is what got me into trouble yesterday.)  So far, I've especially enjoyed the non-flowery (somewhat snarky) pieces in the Telegraph.  From yesterday's obituary of Prof. J. K. Galbraith:

A master of acid invective, he was particularly cruel to industrialists (who conducted much of their business "under conditions of advanced intoxication"), bankers ("a profession where style, self-assurance and tailoring are much more important than intelligence"), and the United States Congress, which "uniquely among modern organs of public and private administration… rewards senility".

But he feigned elegant surprise that opponents should find his grand New England scepticism offensive: he once remarked to President Kennedy that he did not see why the New York Times had to call him arrogant. "I don't see why not," the President replied. "Everyone else does."

alt.obituaries is also worth a look.  Like any other newsgroup, there are people that regularly bait and verbally (textually) abuse each other, but for the most part, it's all obit-related.  Not only do people post obits and reactions, they also post articles about celebrities with failing health, etc.  It's fascinating if you love pop culture.

I highly, highly recommend this book.  Subject matter aside, it's non-fiction for people that aren't fans of non-fiction -- chatty and funny and fast-paced.  The cover art is wonderful and the book itself is tall and narrow -- fittingly, it immediately make me think of a newspaper column.

Read it and report back.