Friday, April 15, 2016

Authors, R.I.P.

It’s an odd thing to say, and I don’t feel entirely comfortable saying it, but you could do a lot worse for book recommendations than the obituary page of any major newspaper. It’s hard admitting that the best thing a writer could do to get my attention is to stop writing forever, but there it is. Obituaries have introduced me to Leonard Michaels, to Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge. In fact, it’s possible the New York Times obituary page has done more to populate my bookshelf than the Book Review.

Obituaries seem tailor-made to get you to start reading, including as they do not only titles but an author’s biography, their place in history, the general reception of their work, their interests and controversies, who they influenced and who influenced them. And if a writer isn’t winning awards or publishing now, or if they never wrote an instant-classic, it can be hard to stumble across them. Some writers retire, some simply go where the zeitgeist does not, and it takes an article buried in a newspaper’s obituary file to raise a flag. On October 2, 1891 New Yorkers read this over breakfast, and undoubtedly some had their curiosity piqued:

“There has died and been buried in this city, during the current week, at an advanced age, a man who is so little known, even by name, to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and this was but of three or four lines. Yet forty years ago the appearance of a new book by Herman Melville was esteemed a literary event, not only throughout his own country, but so far as the English-speaking race extended.”

Obituaries are also useful for recommendations even if the writer is already world famous. Harper Lee’s obituary appeared in February this year. You may have already read To Kill a Mockingbird, but the Times obituary references William Dean Howells, Flannery O’Connor, and Truman Capote. It quotes Lee as saying, “In other words, all I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama.” To understand that you’d have to go read Jane Austen. (This week the Times published obituaries on Arnold Wesker, a playwright, and James Cross Giblin, a children’s author.)

Gore Vidal called Truman Capote’s death “a good career move.” Snark aside, the author’s death is an important step in the life of her work. While a writer lives, she can take a pencil to any of her words, but after death, her work is cast and set. For the uninitiated reader stumbling upon an obituary, however, that work is only just beginning to grow and blossom.

So, if you’re looking for a good book: 1.) ask a librarian; 2.) read the obits. That might be where your librarian is getting their recommendations from in the first place.

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