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The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries (P.S.) Paperback – January 30, 2007


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The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries (P.S.) + Obit: Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People Who Led Extraordinary Lives + 52 McGs.: The Best Obituaries from Legendary New York Times Reporter Robert McG. Thomas
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Product Details

  • Series: P.S.
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (January 30, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060758767
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060758769
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #152,273 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Once upon a time, journalism profs duly instructed their greenhorn grads to seek out community papers and the obit pages as logical entrance points into the world of newspaper reporting. Working for cash-strapped local papers allowed novices to practice writing everything from hard news to lifestyle features. Obituaries, meanwhile, were a rung on the ladder of major publications, albeit the lowest. The musty, dusty obit pages also traditionally hosted aging reporters put out to pasture. Not any more, argues Marilyn Johnson in her unabashedly knock-kneed love letter to the obit pages, The Dead Beat. Today, august publications like The New York Times, England's Daily Telegraph, Independent, and The Economist, and Canada's Globe and Mail use exalted members of the fourth estate to turn out smart, hip tributes to widespread, almost cultish, acclaim. Why? Because, as Johnson persuasively demonstrates in her book, truth is almost always stranger than fiction and a well-written, deeply researched obit is not only a vital historical record but a damn fine read over coffee and toast. "God is my assignment editor," cracks Richard Pearson of the Washington Post and if that isn't more interesting than what's going on in your city council chambers, author Johnson and those working the so-called Dead Beat don't know what is.

As Johnson explains in free-wheeling prose, today's obit writers are virtual folk heroes with global Internet followings and their own conventions. With care and an ear for gentle humor, Johnson guides her readers through the surprisingly structured, labyrinthine obit scene, pausing to meet the writers while pondering both the essence of our being and why, in the right hands, the life of an average Joe can be just as riveting as the shenanigans of a high-flying playboy. And infinitely more resonant. Savvy J-school professors and their students are advised to take heed. --Kim Hughes --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. A journalist who's written obituaries of Princess Di and Johnny Cash, Johnson counts herself among the obit obsessed, one who subsists on the "tiny pieces of cultural flotsam to profound illuminations of history" gathered from obits from around the world, which she reads online daily—sometimes for hours. Her quirky, accessible book starts at the Sixth Great Obituary Writers' International Conference, where she meets others like herself. Johnson explores this written form like a scholar, delving into the differences between British and American obits, as well as regional differences within this country; she visits Chuck Strum, the New York Times' obituary editor, but also highlights lesser-known papers that offer top-notch obits; she reaffirms life as much as she talks about death. Johnson handles her offbeat topic with an appropriate level of humor, while still respecting the gravity of mortality—traits she admires in the best obit writers, who have "empathy and detachment; sensitivity and bluntness." The book claims that obits "contain the most creative writing in journalism" and that we are currently in the golden age of the obituary. We are also nearing the end of newspapers as we know them, Johnson observes, and so "it seems right that their obits are flourishing." (Mar. 1)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Marilyn Johnson is the author of three books: Lives in Ruins, about contemporary archaeologists (coming in November from HarperCollins), This Book Is Overdue! about librarians and archivists in the digital age, and The Dead Beat, about the art of obituaries and obituary writers. The Dead Beat was chosen for the Borders Original Voice program and was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award. Johnson is a former editor at Esquire and Outside magazines, and a former staff writer for Life. She lives with her family in New York's Hudson Valley.
Visit her websites at http://www. thisbookisoverdue.com and http://www.marilynjohnson.net.

Customer Reviews

Indeed it is and this little book is certainly worth buying, to enjoy and savor.
Timothy S. Lucey
I used to think that funeral directors must have the best conventions but after reading Marilyn Johnson's "The Dead Beat" I'll give the nod to obituary writers.
Jon Hunt
Nonetheless, her breezy little book makes an entertaining case for obit writing as both journalism and literature.
Bookreporter

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

61 of 64 people found the following review helpful By Eileen Rieback on March 4, 2006
Format: Hardcover
This morning I read the obituaries in the newspaper. These have never been a part of my daily reading - at least not until I read Marilyn Johnson's "The Dead Beat." It's a funny and touching book that led me to discover an unsung yet immensely popular literary form to which I had never before given a second glance. This book isn't about the paid obituaries by friends and relatives of the deceased. It's about the life (and death) stories written by newspaper staff writers. They are tributes to celebrities, ordinary folks, and those who had a peripheral role in a historic or social context of their day. Besides presenting the story of a life, they are history as it is happening.

The author shares her enthusiasm for both reading and writing obituaries. She covers the history and evolution of the obituary format and content. She describes the obit fanatics who attend the Great Obituary Writers' Conference and who haunt Internet web sites, exchanging the latest gems they have unearthed from newspapers around the globe. She interviews obit writers and editors, and compares and contrasts the writing styles of various newspapers, especially between the American and British. She includes selections from obituaries that sparkle with wit and resonate with the essence of lives lost; they are poetry, folk art, gossip, and short story rolled into one.

Allow me to leave you with this example from the book, one which demonstrates that obits can be humorous: "Selma Koch, a Manhattan store owner who earned a national reputation by helping women find the right bra size, mostly through a discerning glance and never with a tape measure, died Thursday at Mount Sinai Medical Center. She was 95 and a 34B." If this fascinating book about an unusual subject doesn't convert you into an obituary reader, then nothing will!

Eileen Rieback
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Alana Baranick on April 14, 2006
Format: Hardcover
"The Dead Beat" is Marilyn Johnson's love letter to those of us who make a living writing about the dead.

Although the former Life magazine writer has written obituaries for such celebrities as Katherine Hepburn, Marlon Brando and Jackie Kennedy Onassis, she penned her book from the perspective of a fan of end-of-life mini-biographies and the newspaper reporters who compose them.

She examines our stories about recently deceased folks, looking for unusual facts and clever turns of phrase. She gets giddy at uncovering slices of life that are foreign to her, like the existence of polka halls of fame and the "Irish sports page" as a nickname for the obit page. She wonders what terminology to use for the various parts of an obit.

Her keen observations and wonderful way with words provide images that likely will be included in the "last writes" of some obit writers she has met. She compares Larken Bradley, "who writes kindly of old hippies" - dead hippies, of course - for the weekly Point Reyes (Calif.) Light, and Caroline Richmond, "a tough-skinned Brit" who pens "prickly obits" of physicians for the British Medical Journal. She says that Catherine Dunphy of the Toronto Star "manages to make Toronto, a city I've never seen, into a place I feel I know."

Her portrait of the retired Jim Nicholson, regarded as the father of "Average Joe" obits, alone is worth the price of the book.

"Dead Beat" is not an anthology, like many New York Times and Daily Telegraph of London obit books. Nor is it a how-to, like "Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers."

It is an easy- and pleasure-to-read look at once-in-a-lifetime stories and their composers.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Jon Hunt on March 23, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I used to think that funeral directors must have the best conventions but after reading Marilyn Johnson's "The Dead Beat" I'll give the nod to obituary writers. This book is terrific from beginning to end and is full of humor, and, by the way, good writing.

Johnson does more than simply offer anecdotal obituaries...she comments on death and aspects relating to it. This book has a warm feel...even if her subject is one some of us tend to want to forget. To be a successful obituary writer one seems to need a knack for humor, and not "black" humor, necessarily. The author gives us her best when she does indeed share some of the contributions she has uncovered. Johnson quotes a man named Bob Schenley, who wrote an obit of a Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster..."Almost everyone in Pittsburgh who loves baseball....loved Bob Prince, unless, of course, they actually knew him. He was a miserable mean-spirited drunk." My favorite, however, was this one written about Suzanne Kaaren, ninety-two, an actress who had appeared in several Three Stooges shorts. Penned by Stephen Miller, he said of Kaaren, "The Stooges seemed to value her opinion and regularly tried out new material on her." This kind of writing is dead-on funny.

The unusual narrow shape of "The Dead Beat" gives the reader the feeling of scanning a newspaper and is another welcome addition. Johnson delivers a flow which never lets down and does not disappoint. I loved "The Dead Beat" and I highly recommend it.
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Format: Hardcover
"Selma Koch, a Manhattan store owner who earned a national reputation by helping women find the right bra size, mostly through a discerning glance and never with a tape measure, died Thursday at Mount Sinai Medical Center. She was 95 and a 34B."

It may take especially thick skin to find a book on the subject of obituaries anything but depressing and morbid, but for those like me who are pre-disposed to finding such things more entertaining and fascinating than frightening this is an appealing topic. Then again, I'm native to the Deep South, where people go on death watch the minute you pick up the phone to make an appointment for a medical check up. In a culture that lives to bake casseroles in anticipation of disaster, any southern cook worth her salt will have water on to boil the instant Uncle Leroy feels the first chest pain, and by the time he hits the floor will have the casserole sitting on his doorstep.

Marilyn Johnson is a woman obsessed by obituaries, and in The Dead Beat she writes about the good, the bad and the ugly of the genre. What makes a good obituary, what makes a bad one, and how can we tell the difference? Burning questions, all of them, and every one is answered in this book, complete with numerous examples of all sorts of tributes. Some are weepy, some are wonderfully catty and some are just plain pathetic, but what they tell us is the subject of death is morbidly fascinating to us all.

Obituaries can also apparently be informative:

"How about Harold von Braunhut, the genius behind sea monkeys? Sea Monkeys, mail-order packets of brine shrimp, shrimp that could be shipped and shelved in dried form, sprang to life when dropped in water; 400 million of them once shot into space with an astronaut. I learned this on the obits page.
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