Title: The Economist Book of Obituaries (ISBN: 978-1-57660-326-0)
Written by: Keith Colquhoun and Ann Wroe
Published By: Bloomberg Press, November 2008
Book Specs: Hardcover, 416 pages, 6 1/8″ x 9 1/4″ 200 photos
Price: $29.95 US/$34.95 CAN
My Overall Opinion of the Book
This book was fascinating, educational, funny, political, and judgmental. It is almost never sad. A collection of 200 obituaries written between 1994 to 2008 (each one two pages long), The Economist Book of Obituaries is oddly enjoyable and fascinating. It may sound a strange book to read, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Even if you are not a fan of obituaries (and there are many obituary fans out there), I think you could enjoy this book purely from an entertainment and educational perspective.
Why I Read the Book
I became interested in this book after reading Marilyn Johnson’s The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. Johnson’s book documents her love of obituaries and some of the great writers of the genre. While reading her book, I learned the difference between American and British obituaries (the British are not afraid to “tell it like they see it”) and joined Johnson on her visit to some of the leading obituary writers of the world. The Dead Beat was a pretty fun book to read, and I found myself wanting to read the type of obituaries that got Johnson so excited. So when LibraryThing listed The Economist Book of Obituaries in its Early Reviewer books for November, I jumped at the chance to get it. I was thrilled when I was lucky enough to receive a review copy.
The Basic Structure of the Book
This is not a book you need to read straight-through. It is ideal for picking up and putting down at will. Each obituary is two pages long and includes a relevant black and white photo. The obituaries are listed in alphabetical order, and there is a Table of Contents to let you pick which ones you might want to read. (I read the book straight through since I was reviewing it, but I could definitely view this more as a book to peruse at your leisure.) Each obituary starts with a single sentence that tells the name of the deceased, their basic “claim to fame,” their date of death and their age at the time of death. Other than these basic structural elements, each obituary is wildly different in style, tone and purpose.
Who Is Covered In the Book
The obituaries in the book include 199 people and one parrot (Alex the African Grey — billed as “science’s best-known parrot”). The famous (Princess Diana, Bob Hope, John Paul II, Julia Child, Norman Mailer) and the not-so-famous (the inventor of the Cup of Noodles, the inventor of frozen non-dairy topping, America’s King of the Hobos, Japan’s royal tutor, one of the founders of Mensa). The subjects are from a wide variety of countries and from all walks of life — scientists, musicians, writers, social activists, criminals, royalty. What makes this book great is that it doesn’t matter what you know about the subject (half of the people in the book I’d never heard of), you will learn about them, their importance in the world, and their contributions to their chosen field. Each obituary is not so much about the individual person and their life story, but more about what their life meant to the world they lived in.
For example, the obituary of Sue Sumii–a champion of Japan’s untouchables — is clearly meant as a way to highlight this little discussed aspect of Japanese society. The obituary of Yasser Talal al-Zahrani — a prisoner in Guantanamo who died at the age of 21 — is meant to be a statement of the wrongness of Guantanamo. This particular obituary ends like this:
“As he had hoped, his death led voices around the world to demand that the camp be closed. One senior American official, immovable, called his suicide ‘a good PR move.’ She may have been right; Guantanamo, alas, remains, wrong.”
Not all the obituaries are of a political nature. Some are sly social commentary–such as the joint obituary of Brooke Astor and Leona Helmsley (both “grandes dames of New York”) that compares the two ladies radically different approaches to life by comparing everything from their dogs to their real estate holdings.
Other obituaries are very educational on a particular topic to which the person being written about contributed — such as cricket, beekeeping, auto racing, container ships, aviation safety, surrogate parenting law, to name just a few.
Perhaps the most creatively written obituary is the joint obituary of Robert Brooks (one of the founders of Hooters) and Mickey Spillane (creator of Mike Hammer), which is written as a short story that has Mike Hammer going to Hooters. That this obituary manages to tie two such disparate people together as “suppliers of fantasies to American males” and be written in a story format while still managing to pay homage to both subjects is just pure genius.
The Style of the Book
What makes these obituaries such a pleasure to read is the style in which they are written. The authors are not afraid to be irreverent, and they do not shy away from taking a detour away from the main story to make an important point. In short, the obituaries are very well-written, which is why it didn’t always matter to me who they were writing about. I marked some of the my particular favorites to give you a sense of what makes these obituaries such a pleasure to read.
From the obituary of Jeanne Calment (the world’s oldest person): “Perhaps it does not matter. For most people, the interest in Mrs. Calment was her durability.”
From the obituary of Barbara Cartland: “She was worried about her prospects for immortality, as indeed she had reason to be.”
From the obituary of Estee Lauder: “Time, however, also trailed her, with his ghastly wrinkled face and his sallow hue that coordinated with no bathrooms.”
From the obituary of Stanley Marcus (founder of Neiman-Marcus): “There comes a time in the life of the average billionaire when money ceases to be important. Suddenly it no longer seems to make the world go round; it has become quite boring. Stanley Marcus was sympathetic to the problem and sought to rekindle interest in possessions among those who wanted for nothing.”
From the obituary of Dr Spock: “It was, on the face of it, an odd book to have become one of the bestsellers of the century. The one endeavour the human race was used to, and indeed had become quite good at, was having babies and bringing them to adulthood.”
I hope this review has conveyed what a unique and fascinating book this is. It certainly made me understand why Marilyn Johnson and so many others enjoy reading obituaries on a regular basis. I suspect that this book contains the creme de la creme of obituary writing, and I hope to see another edition in the future!
One final note: The book itself has a very rich feel to it. The paper has a nice sheen to it, and the book feels very weighty and solid. I appreciated that feeling and find it appropriate for a book that contains the story of 199 human lives and 1 parrot.