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Reading Obituaries

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon shares his love of the obit section.

I am an unabashed fan of trivial information. I suppose this may rightfully be referred to as trivia, but I prefer the adjectival word to the plural noun – trivia has a limited range of meaning (each of which is more or less contemptuous), whereas trivial can refer to things having to do with math, chemistry, mediæval university studies, the place where three roads meet, and a host of other subjects. The trivial does not provide grand explanations for why the world is so, but it tells some small piece of history as a story, and in doing so grabs my attention in a way that great events never seem to. I suppose this is why I enjoy reading obituaries.

I find the obituaries to be by far the most interesting part of the newspaper. Not because I have a morbid fascination with death, but because this is where wonderful little details come out, things that would ordinarily not be classified as news. Yesterday I was reminded of one of my favorite obituaries of recent years, from the New York Times of September 12, 2008, titled “Martin K. Tytell, Typewriter Wizard, Dies at 94”.

It is a long obituary, and justifiably so, for even though it deals with (mostly antique) typewriters, the man it profiles was the foremost expert of this field, and deserves the column inches. It is a fascinating story, full of intrigue (Alger Hiss and the O.S.S.) and descriptions of a man who was entirely devoted to his field. Somewhere near the middle there a nugget of trivia, mentioned almost in passing: “An error he made on a Burmese typewriter, inserting a character upside down, became a standard, even in Burma.” I cannot help but wonder what the typewriter wizard’s feelings were on this – was he chagrinned at his mistake, or satisfied in a quiet fashion that his influence was such as to change a written language?

This has been on my mind of late because a friend has recommended a book on the subject: The Dead Beat, by Marilyn Johnson, a former obituary writer. I’ve not yet had the chance to read it, but it has the twin virtues of featuring a fine, under-written subject and possessing a great opening line: “People have been slipping out of this world in occupational clusters, I’ve noticed, for years.”

I wish that there were more of this in the news. It is not that I want to ignore the ugliness and strife of the world, and I am not calling for more feel-good human-interest stories in the news, but why must the unimportant yet interesting details wait until a person is dead before they can be widely known? It seems odd that death grants the permission to make the whimsical newsworthy.

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