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Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries
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Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries

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by Marilyn Johnson
     
 

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Marilyn Johnson was enthralled by the remarkable lives that were marching out of this world—so she sought out the best obits in the English language and the people who spent their lives writing about the dead. She surveyed the darkest corners of Internet chat rooms, and made a pilgrimage to London to savor the most caustic and literate obits of all. Now she

Overview

Marilyn Johnson was enthralled by the remarkable lives that were marching out of this world—so she sought out the best obits in the English language and the people who spent their lives writing about the dead. She surveyed the darkest corners of Internet chat rooms, and made a pilgrimage to London to savor the most caustic and literate obits of all. Now she leads us on a compelling journey into the cult and culture behind the obituary page and the unusual lives we don't quite appreciate until they're gone.

Editorial Reviews

David Halberstam
“A charming, lyrical book about the men and women who write obituaries… sly, droll, and completely winning.”
Roy Blount
“[Marilyn Johnson]’s written a warm, funny, appreciative book that, ironically enough, should live forever. But get it now.”
Lee Eisenberg
“A joyful book about obituaries? Absolutely! Marilyn Johnson pulls it off with death-defying grace, insight, charm, and wit.”
Lisa Grunwald
“A beautifully written, funny, and fascinating tour through the unexpectedly lively world of obituaries.”
Michiko Kakutani
A fetching book about obituaries? Well, yes: Ms. Johnson writes about obituaries with the zeal � and insight � of an avid obit fan, someone who looks at half a dozen newspapers a day and spends hours online, Googling death: reading posts on the alt.obituaries newsgroup and posting favorite obits of her own.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
A journalist who's written obituaries of Princess Di and Johnny Cash, Johnson counts herself among the obit obsessed, one who subsists on the "tiny pieces of cultural flotsam to profound illuminations of history" gathered from obits from around the world, which she reads online daily-sometimes for hours. Her quirky, accessible book starts at the Sixth Great Obituary Writers' International Conference, where she meets others like herself. Johnson explores this written form like a scholar, delving into the differences between British and American obits, as well as regional differences within this country; she visits Chuck Strum, the New York Times' obituary editor, but also highlights lesser-known papers that offer top-notch obits; she reaffirms life as much as she talks about death. Johnson handles her offbeat topic with an appropriate level of humor, while still respecting the gravity of mortality-traits she admires in the best obit writers, who have "empathy and detachment; sensitivity and bluntness." The book claims that obits "contain the most creative writing in journalism" and that we are currently in the golden age of the obituary. We are also nearing the end of newspapers as we know them, Johnson observes, and so "it seems right that their obits are flourishing." (Mar. 1) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Johnson, a former magazine writer and editor who has written obituaries herself, here offers an engaging study of today's obituaries. In reviewing the structure of the typical death story, she points out how those for the famous are largely compiled and kept up-to-date during their lifetimes. Yet her study goes beyond notable people, including stories about the average Joe; notices from a number of different American newspapers are compared, with Johnson examining in particular detail the obituary style of the New York Times and its pieces on the lives of those killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There is also coverage of obituary writing as practiced on the Internet. Ultimately, Johnson considers London the obituary capital of the world and reviews the current styles employed by the four major dailies there. While the topic is specialized, Johnson's writing style makes the book enjoyable. She expresses proper reverence when necessary but generally keeps the subject light, with a humorous tone. Suggested for most public libraries.-Joel W. Tscherne, formerly with Cleveland P.L. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
What makes the obituaries the best part of the morning newspaper?Debut author Johnson, who wrote a few herself during her career as a magazine editor, loves obituaries. Truly-they're the first things she reads in a newspaper. She collects obits that seem to mirror each other, like those of the actor who voiced Tigger in Winnie-the-Pooh, and his colleague, who voiced Piglet (the two died within a day of each other). When Johnson travels to London, for example, the first thing she does is ecstatically gather up that city's four great papers "in a haze of pleasure" so she can read their obit pages, which she calls "works of art." Her devotion is the heart of this warm but repetitive book about the craft of reconstructing a person's life in a few squibs. She doesn't provide much structure here as she bops around from an obit-writers' convention in New Mexico (during which time Ronald Reagan died, causing a minor pandemonium) to the aforementioned London in order to query obit-writing's great practitioners. Along the way, she provides some excellent examples of the best sort of obituaries, the ones that awaken you to the greatness of a seemingly small life or serve as a gateway to obscure historical events. Contrary to popular opinion, many newspapers don't have a drawer full of ready-to-go obits that merely need polishing, so readers experience some real journalistic thrills as rushed writers struggle to meet deadline and still find that single unique thing about a seemingly average person. But like all obsessives, Johnson can be a bore; she endlessly enumerates the differences among various newspapers' styles, in particular the divide between the more reticent, euphemistic Americans and thesaucy Brits, who throw spadefuls of scandal over the recently departed. A smart, if longwinded take on journalism's dark art.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060758769
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
01/31/2007
Series:
P. S. Series
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
272
Sales rank:
616,293
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Dead Beat

Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries
By Marilyn Johnson

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Marilyn Johnson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060758759

Chapter One

I Walk the Dead Beat

People have been slipping out of this world in occupational clusters, I've noticed, for years. Four journalists passed their deadline one day, and their obits filled a whole corner of the paper. What news sent them over the edge? How often do you see two great old actresses take their bows, or two major-league pitchers strike out together? Often enough to spook. Some days sculptors are called, some days pioneer cartoonists. A New York Times editor threw up his hands on June 13, 2004, and ran two almost perfectly parallel stories under one headline: winners of the medal of honor from two eras die; both men saved fellow marines.

It is more than coincidence, and certainly more than the vigilance of an editor on the graveyard shift. It's supernatural. I thrilled recently to a pair of obituaries for Paul Winchell, the voice of Tigger in Pooh, and John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet in Pooh; the two had gone silent a day apart. I keep them next to my clip from October 25, 1986, the day the New York Times ran side-by-side obituaries for the scientist who isolated vitamin C and the scientist who isolated vitamin K. One was ninety-three; the other ninety-two. One died on a Wednesday, one on a Thursday. One's farewell ran three columns, one ran two. One extracted the vitamin from tons of cattle adrenals scooped from the Chicago slaughterhouses, and also from paprika. One extracted female hormones from tons of sow ovaries. Make something of these differences if you dare. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi and Edward Adelbert Doisy, Sr., Dr. C and Dr. K respectively, both Nobel Prize winners, left the world together.

Did they get the idea from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson? In 1826, the second and third presidents of the United States died in harmony on July 4, exactly fifty years after they signed the Declaration of Independence. The New-York American wrote:

By a coincidence marvellous and enviable, THOMAS JEFFERSON in like manner with his great compeer, John Adams, breathed his last on the 4th of July. Emphatically may we say, with a Boston paper, had the horses and the chariot of fire descended to take up the patriarchs, it might have been more wonderful, but not more glorious. We remember nothing in the annals of man so striking, so beautiful, as the death of these two "time-honoured" patriots, on the jubilee of that freedom, which they devoted themselves and all that was dear to them, to proclaim and establish. It cannot all be chance.

No, surely it cannot all be chance. These are mystical forces, and what better place to find them at work than in the obituaries?

Such coincidences don't occur every day, but it wouldn't take you a week to begin a creative collection. A veteran UPI photographer and a veteran AP photographer. A professor of theology, a pastor, and a nun. An author named Arthur, an architect named Aaron, and an artist named Alois. Two obstetricians. The inventor of alternate-side-of-the-street parking and one of the founders of Evelyn Wood's course in alternate-word reading. The service industry of Hollywood -- a hairdresser, a caterer, and a costume designer. Princess Diana and Mother Teresa! Cary Grant and Desi Arnaz. The head of the tiniest kingdom in the world, the Vatican (Pope John Paul II), and the leader of the second-tiniest kingdom in the world, Monaco (Prince Rainier).

This is not craziness. It's careful newspaper reading. Each day, after I read, I wash the newsprint off my hands and think about universal harmonies. I think about things I haven't thought about since childhood, such as guardian angels. I used to believe we each walked around with a sort of ghost of ourself guiding and watching over us. Is it possible that instead of a guardian angel we each have a double, a guarantee that our work gets done? If we're the sort who isolates alphabet vitamins, there are two of us, just in case. If we are the voice of Tigger, the voice of Piglet backs us up.

A friend of mine used to collect "bus plunge" headlines. You'd be amazed how easy these are to collect. Buses plunge over cliffs and into canyons across the world, and newspaper editors seem resigned to the sameness and predictability of such a universal death. Nearly every headline reads, so many killed in such and such country's bus plunge. Once, the New York Times reported 10 die in brazil bus plunge, though it wasn't even a bus that plunged. It was a truck. But the convention persists.

I think of bus plunges as the generic passing. Many of us took the plunge yesterday. What did we have in common? We happened to be riding the same bus. Perhaps the bus is literal -- ten of us over a precipice in a south Brazilian state. Or perhaps it is metaphoric -- an imaginary bus that on Saturday encapsulates two vitamin scientists and on Sunday bears a cargo of handmaidens to Hollywood.

The bus is an attempt to grasp the unthinkable, of course: one day we're riding along on the highway; the next, we plunge out of sight. Who knows who might be sitting beside us? Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox's seatmate was Watergate counsel Sam Dash. Lawrence Welk's trumpeter and his accordion player played a duet out the door. The queen of the Netherlands and the king of the frozen french fry left the party together. The editor-in-chief of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists went off with the lead guitarist for a rock group called the Blasters. I clipped them all. The New York Times comes each morning in a blue plastic wrapper, and never fails to deliver news of the important dead. Every day is new; every day is fraught with significance. I arrange my cup of tea, prop up my slippers. I open the not-yet-smudged pages of newsprint. Obituaries are history as it is happening. I know one of . . .

Continues...


Excerpted from The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson Copyright © 2006 by Marilyn Johnson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

David Halberstam
“A charming, lyrical book about the men and women who write obituaries… sly, droll, and completely winning.”
Roy Blount
“[Marilyn Johnson]’s written a warm, funny, appreciative book that, ironically enough, should live forever. But get it now.”
Lee Eisenberg
“A joyful book about obituaries? Absolutely! Marilyn Johnson pulls it off with death-defying grace, insight, charm, and wit.”
Lisa Grunwald
“A beautifully written, funny, and fascinating tour through the unexpectedly lively world of obituaries.”

Meet the Author

Marilyn Johnson is the author of This Book Is Overdue! and The Dead Beat, which was a Borders Original Voices selection and a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. She lives in New York's Hudson Valley with her husband, Rob Fleder.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Briarcliff, New York
Place of Birth:
St. Louis, Missouri
Education:
B.A., University of Pennsylvania; M.A., University of New Hampshire
Website:
http://www.marilynjohnson.net

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