Every week I eagerly await the magazines that are dropped into my postbox, and once they arrive each is subjected a particular routine. The New Yorker I start with the cover illustration; after staring at it for a minute or two I switch to the cartoon contest on the last page; after that comes the contents page, the short contributor bios and the rest of the magazine. With Time it is rather straight-forward: a linear path from front cover to the back page, read with the same breeziness it is written with. The Economist is a bit tricky: unless distracted by a cover story or the special report, I start with the editorials and then, based on my inclination, either move to the books-and-arts pages or plough through the individual sections, page by page. All the while, though, there is one part of this ‘paper’ – as it prefers to call itself – that remains at the back of my mind, waiting for the right moment: the obituary column towards the end. I discovered it a few years ago, and ever since it has provided a window into interesting lives of (mostly) not-so-well known people.
Earlier this year in the week when David Foster Wallace committed suicide, when most newspapers and magazines were publishing eulogies of this ‘genius’, The Economist ran a piece on Martin Tytell, “a man who loved typewriters.” This delightful obituary brought to life the passion of a man labelled “the last famous doctor and psychiatrist” of typewriters, someone “who could draw from them, after a brief while of blue-eyed peering with screwdriver in hand, when they had left the factory, how they had been treated and with exactly what pressure their owner had hit the keys.” Through descriptions of Martin’s love for the typewriter, the piece reflected on the death of a machine whose soul, according to Martin, “did not come through a cable in the wall, but lay within.”
The obituary brought back memories of my father’s old portable Remington I first learned to type on, the love ‘poems’ I wrote, crushed and re-wrote on it, the crackle it made as the sheets – always multiple, with films of carbon in-between – were wound. I was both astonished and sad when it occurred to me that the next generation would probably have to visit a museum to get a glimpse of a typewriter and the way it worked. I found the online version of the obituary and forwarded it to some friends; inwardly, I thanked The Economist for their wisdom in continuing a column which, if you thought about it, was completely out of character with the rest of the paper’s regular contents.
It was no surprise that a few weeks later, when I saw an advertisement for ‘The Economist Book of Obituaries’ – a selection of the paper’s obituaries from 1995 to the present – I almost ran towards the computer to order a copy through their bookstore on the web. It arrived after some days, a thickly bound book containing around 200 obituaries, each on a glossy two-page spread with a photograph and elegant characters set in EcoType. The ‘Introduction’ gave insights into the column’s origins, its author’s tastes and methods.
The column was started in late ‘94 when Bill Emmot – the paper’s then editor – was “persuaded that obituaries ‘would add a sense of history and humanity to a paper often rather lacking in both’ “. Its first author – Keith Colquhoun, who occupied this role for eight years – “kept an enormous list of his subjects, collated by geography and gender” and thought that “it was important to keep down the number of Americans (who would otherwise take over), to give a fair whack to the Asians, and to get more women in.” Keith handed the column over to its present author Ann Wroe in 2003, who offers a candid view of her research methods:
“…the Obituaries Editor usually has no more than two days to research and write the piece. Speed reading becomes essential and the London Library, conveniently round the corner, a godsend. Google, of course, helps too; but there is no substitute, I still find, for books. They allow the total immersion in a character that is necessary.”
On the matter of choosing candidates:
“They must have led interesting and thought-provoking lives. Whether they have lived good lives, in the usual meaning of “good”, couldn’t matter less. We are not in the business of eulogies, or even of appreciations. The bad, the immoral, or the flighty sometimes make the best copy.”
And on purpose:
“.. I see my obituaries as progress reports on a life that continues, somehow, elsewhere. My purpose is to try to distill the essence of that life as it passes, and to try to describe it as far as possible from the point of view of the subject. For what has gone away from the world, for better or worse, is that particular perspective and that particular voice.”
A recent piece on Jorn Utzon, the architect of the Sydney Opera House, is another little gem that embodies these qualities. It infuses the famous monument, until now for me just another tourist attraction, with a character that will be difficult to forget.
There are few reasons to celebrate death or to derive pleasure out of it, but strange as it may sound, The Economist obituary, through its illumination of interesting lives lived, offers a good one.