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The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson

The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries is Marilyn Johnson's first book.  It is the second book by Marilyn Johnson that I have read and reviewed here on the blog.  I previously read and reviewed This Book Is Overdue.  Her research for The Dead Beat and the interesting obituaries of librarians that she found led her to the subject of her follow up book, which was This Book Is Overdue.

This book was a little slow to start, but it sucked me in around the part about how the New York Times dealt with 9/11 and its resultant obituaries or "portraits" as the paper dubbed its articles about the myriad missing but not yet confirmed dead.  Indeed this particular section was rather poignant.  Johnson is a fan of obituaries--she reads obits from several newspapers, including some from Great Britain.  She has even attended an international obituarists conference, an eclectic gathering of both obituary writers and the fans who faithfully, obsessively read them; though it isn't clear if her attendance was solely as a fan, for a research for her book, or a little bit of both.

The book starts with an account of the conference and those she meets there and an analysis of the obituary as a writing form.  This is followed by chapters in which she interviews obituary editors from several American newspapers followed by interviews with editors and writers of British obituaries and the differences between the American tradition versus the British tradition in obituaries (yes, there is a difference in style, structure and tone).

Reading this book, I've realized that Johnson's obituaries differ widely from those with which I'm familiar.  For example, the paid obituaries that run in the Lebanon Daily News are that which Johnson terms "paid death notices" (although, my definition of "death notice" differs from hers as well...).  In fact Johnson finds the rote details, such as the survivors list or the deceased's birth and death dates, shared in these obits tedious.  Meanwhile, this is the information I find most valuable.  However, my reading perspective differs from Johnson's in that I often read obits from the genealogist's perspective for the genealogical information that can be gleaned from such items, while Johnson is reading obits more for the pleasure of reading and for the news.

This was an interesting, eye opening book.  However, I enjoyed This Book Is Overdue more than I enjoyed this one.  I'm looking forward to reading Johnson's latest book, Lives In Ruins.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie


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