Several years ago, a couple of my friends told me that they loved to read obituaries. At the time, I thought it was really weird. They weren’t old enough to be seeing lots of people they knew listed, and why would they want to read about a bunch of dead strangers? They told me that good obits are really about life, not about death, and that most of the people who got written up in real obituaries, instead of just death announcements, did something interesting in life. That made sense, but it still didn’t get me into the habit of looking at obituaries. Still, when I saw The Economist Book of Obituaries listed as a LibraryThing Early Reviewers selection, I thought of my friends and put my name in for it. To my surprise, I got a copy.
This collection includes around 200 obituaries published in The Economist since the weekly publication began printing obituaries in 1995. Each obit is around 1,000 words and features a picture of the subject. My friends were quite right that obituaries do not have to be about death at all. In fact, in many of these selections, the cause of death is not even mentioned. Instead, the write-ups are all about people’s lives—good lives, bad lives, and everything in between.
In the introduction, current obituary page editor Ann Wroe describes how obituary subjects are selected for The Economist. They only feature one obituary in each issue, so they have to choose carefully, and they try to choose a wide range of subjects, sometimes focusing on what seem to be minor figures. The main criteria, Wroe says, is that “they must have led interesting and thought-provoking lives.” This philosophy makes for a fascinating and eclectic collection. Political leaders, entertainers, sports figures, fashion icons, writers, inventors, soldiers, and scientists from around the world are all featured. Just to give you a taste, the first three entries are Red Adair, a firefighter who specialized in especially hazardous fires on oil fields; Alex the African Grey, a parrot with surprising cognitive abilities; and Momofuku Ando, the inventor of Cup Noodle. (This last was one of my favorites because it’s just so random but suprisingly interesting.)
Some of the obituaries are very entertaining. My favorite was the combined obit for Robert Brooks, the founder of Hooters, and author Mickey Spillane. In it, Mike Hammer goes to Hooters. Most of the profiles are not nearly so clever, but they are interesting, and I imagine anyone would learn something new from this collection. In Malcolm McLean’s obituary, I found out how McLean applied what he learned from selling eggs from his family farm to the business of transporting goods on massive container ships. I learned about Japan’s caste system from the profile of Sue Sumii, who fought for the rights of the burakumin, Japan’s untouchables. And I discovered that Julia Child knew nothing about French food until 1948, when she was in her mid-30s.
Obviously, not all of the profiles held my interest. I thought that some required more political and historical knowledge than I actually have. And I’m just not interested in sports, so I didn’t get a lot out of many of the sports obits. But, overall, this was an enjoyable collection. It would make a nice coffee table, breakfast table, or bathroom book. It’s a fun book to just dip into just to see what you find.