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 the saucy Brits, who throw spadefuls of scandal over the recently departed.
A smart, if longwinded take on journalism’s dark art.