070: The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson

by Gerard

070.44992: Johnson, Marilyn. The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasure of Obituaries. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. 223 pp. ISBN 978-0-06-075876-9.

Included in the general knowledge section of the DDC (000s) are the newspapers of the world. After general organizations in the 060s but before the books of general collections (read “books of quotations”) in the 080s, newspapers occupy the 070s. Each geographic region of newpapers gets their own section albeit with a lot of bias. U.S. papers fall in 071, British ones in 072, and so forth (newspapers from “other parts of the world” get stuffed into 079). If you write a book about newspapers in general (or are a world newspaper) or look into newspapers from different parts of the world, you get moved to the top–070.

Marilyn Johnson, in The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasure of Obituaries, roams America and Britain to both read obituaries and interview those that write them. The book starts out a little unsettling. I mean, who wants to read an entire book about the deaths of other people? If you give the book a chapter to warm up, the world of obituaries and obituarists becomes utterly fascinating.

Johnson, while including a few nods to legitimately famous people and their demise, generally skews towards the Ordinary Joe obit, relishing in finding those who were known as San Fran’s most knowledgeable sadomasochist or who survived the Russian Revolution only to come to the U.S. and work in a plastics factory. It’s the little details that make people seem more real to the reader and to us. She talks to some of those whose job it is to interview the family just after the death and piece together a fitting send-off. Obituarists are more than eulogists, they try to write the richest biography they can with the time they have available.

The book itself is a quick read (it took me 5 or 6 hours, with breaks) and does a good job at keeping the reader entertained. The frequent interspersing of actual obits may seem jarring at first, but they help to cleanse the palate after heavy discourse with the writers. One of the many items of interest is the realization there is actually an annual meeting of obituarists held to bring these quirky writers together and share their secrets. And it’s open to the public.