Monday, December 26, 2016
I Got the Doorstopper
I hadn't seen the physical book until it was handed to me yesterday morning to unwrap. It is a heavy book, shaped a bit like a tablet that you might imagine the 10 Commandments were etched on. It has a biblical quality, that would be further enhanced by a frilly purple placeholder dangling from between the pages, or "passages," passages of lives lived and now gone. A pulpit would complete the deal. I'm sure its physical design is no accident. There are no coincidences in marketing.
It is an understatement to say the book is comprehensive, spanning the years 1851 through 2016, coincidental of course with the publishing history of the paper. The 320 obituaries, with black and white photos in most cases, are arranged in categories chosen by the editor. They make sense. Sport figures are in 'The Atheltes' section, world leaders in the 'The World Stage' section.
Who though made the 'Notorious' section, pages 216 through 225? There are only five subjects. You will be surprised at the first, and fully understand how the other four made into this highly specialized section.
In total, the book weighs in at 646 pages, but hardly ends there. How do you get to the promised 10,000 digital obituaries? Easy. A tiny USB tab, smaller than some of the pills I swallow, is connected to a thin piece of stiff paper, the size of a business card. After some user name, password creation and registration hocus-pocus, who are led to a proprietary website that will get you to anyone you can think of and see if the NYT considered their demise newsworthy enough to write about it.
The arrangement here is creative. You can search, browse by a selection of very distinct categories, like mathematicians, (but no physicists) and 43 other categories that should provider you endless hours of historical fun. You can also browse by year. You can create your own "vault" of favorites, I guess the Facebook-like "Like" of dead people. I'm sure the obituary smitten will even devise a game to be played with other equally smitten obit junkies, just based on digital access to 10,000 names.
The only thing I've found lacking for the obit junkie is an ability to get the obits written by a particular writer. The junkies know these folks, and their styles, and something that aggregated say Robert McG. Thomas Jr., Robert McFadden, or Margalit Fox would be a nice function. Perhaps in the next release.
Familiar a bit with the content and style of current bylined obits? Try some really old names. Quite by accident I spotted that there was obit for Jesse James, and not in the 'Notorious' section but in the 'Old West' section.
The April 3, 1882 obituary from St. Joseph, Missouri is nearly a coroner's report of where the bullet entered Jesse, where it exited, and how much blood was gurgling onto the lap of his wife as she tried to hear his last words. They don't write them like they used to.
Contrast this with the obit of John Gotti, found digitally, because I looked for someone who might be considered by some to be a modern day equivalent of Jesse James. The modern obit is given over to a far richer chronology of one's life, their parents, their schooling (if any), and in Mr. Gotti's case, their near constant brushes with the law and trials.
I remember reading Mr. Gotti's obit when it was first published, and the re-read was just as informative. Jimmy Breslin years and years ago wrote a funny book that they turned in to a bad movie, 'The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight' about the South Brooklyn brotherhood in the 60s and 70s, the Gallos, the Profacis, the Gambinos, the gang.
Well the re-read of John Gotti's obit tells us they named one of their early storefront headquarters, 'The Bergin Hunt and Fish Club.' My neighborhood in Flushing had one of these like-named storefronts next to a dry cleaners. The window was painted over with something like "....Rod and Reel Hunt Club' lettering. I never remember ever seeing anyone associated with the place.
Well, it turns out John's headquarters had relocated from East New York Brooklyn to Ozone Park Queens, but in homage to its roots used the name of the street the headquarters was on in Brooklyn, Bergen Street.
They however misspelled it as Bergin when they moved to Queens. The Gang that Couldn't Spell.