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.
(Synopsis from Harper Perennial edition; Cover image from Goodreads.com)
I’m sure if someone had seen me walking around with a book whose full title reads The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, they might have been a little confused, and possibly a little concerned. However, after reading Marilyn Johnson‘s Lives in Ruins in November, I found myself wanting to read more of her work. (My review can be found here.) So, to achieve this goal, I used a gift card from my “baby” brother from Christmas to order books, including The Dead Beat.
I did enjoy this book, but if I’m being honest (which I am), I did not enjoy The Dead Beat as much as I enjoyed Lives in Ruins. Johnson does a great job of introducing the reader to the world of obituaries. As I am not much of an obituary reader, and I do not peruse obituaries from various sources online, I did not realize how vast the world of obituaries truly was and is. Maybe this is because I’ve only glanced through the obituary section looking for familiar names that I’ve never really looked at the format and writing for the obituaries. (This was also something that was never taught in the journalism classes that I took.)
I found myself thoroughly intrigued though as Johnson, through interviews and examples, demonstrated the true art that lies behind the work of obituary writers. There were different approaches that were taken, and unbeknownst to me, some competition between papers and their obituary sections. I never even realized that there were writers considered to be the “greats” and “fathers” of obituary writing. Now that I know about these though, I find myself compelled to read more, also due to the snippets of writing that was shared by Johnson throughout the book.
Not only was I shocked by the final pieces that were shared, but I was also intrigued by how affected the writers were by their work. They all seem to write with a passion for their subjects that any writer could only hope to have for any piece that they write. These writers are driven by their subjects, as well as a strict deadline. Many of the most moving pieces of writing were done for “ordinary Joes” and not the largest of public figures. I found myself being inspired by these tributes and the lives they portray in all of their honesty. The obituaries that Johnson writes about aren’t your typical presentation of facts, but draw out an image of the person as their life was and the things that made each person special, good or bad.
There were points in the book though where Johnson caused my attention to wane for brief periods. I think it would be difficult to sustain the intrigue around obituaries for the length of an entire novel. I felt like there were points where there was some repetition in the points that she was making, but I was always brought back around. In fact, Johnson made mention of a couple other books that were put together by some of the writers mentioned that have already made their way on to my TBR list.
Overall, I thought The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson was a good read. I thought the topic was unique, and one that can find an audience with a reader whether they are an obit fan or not. Johnson went to great lengths to interview many writers and to study their techniques which creates an appreciation for obituary writing. I don’t think I’ve been converted into a fanatic, but I will be looking more closely at the writing that is done in the obituary section of the paper.