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March 25, 2009 > Business Bookclub: "The Economist Book of Obituaries"

Business Bookclub: "The Economist Book of Obituaries"

By Keith Colquhoun and Ann Wroe

You're a pretty fast talker, but you'll never get out of this one.

You can plead, cajole, bargain, wheedle, whine, beg, beseech, make offers, make amends, and make intercessions but it's not going to work. You can ask nice, pretty please with sugar, and get down on your knees in supplication. But in the end, you'll be stuck.

Because in the end, you're going to die.

It happens to the best of us, no matter what we do. If you're lucky, though, or if you've led an exemplary life or done interesting things, you'll join the few who are immortalized by The Economist, a weekly newspaper. In the new book "The Economist Book of Obituaries" by Keith Colquhoun and Ann Wroe, you'll read brief life stories of notaries and others who should just be noted.

For the first 150 years of its existence, The Economist didn't include obituaries. When 1980s-era British journalism made obituaries "lively, literary and irreverent", Wroe says it was suggested that a "single obituary each week could add zest to [The Economist's] back pages..." Writing obituaries wasn't considered a plum job until Keith Colquhoun assumed the task in 1995. Wroe succeeded Colquhoun in 2003.

In this book, you'll find the ubiquitous politicians and businessmen, of course. Cyrus Vance is eulogized, as is Claudia Alta. So are Estee Lauder; David Packard of Hewlett-Packard fame; the founders of Club Med and Mensa; a beer man and a Beatle; and two wealthy women who died within days of one another.

No obituary book is complete without royalty (Princess Diana), heroes (the Columbia seven), and old warriors (the last French foot-soldier of World War I, and a World War II soldier who emerged from hiding 27 years after war's end). You'll read about the glitterati of literati (Hunter S. Thompson and Mickey Spillane), Hollywood hotshots (Stanley Kubrick and Anna Nicole Smith), fashion makers (Gucci) and law breakers (Veerappan).

The thing is, though, you can find those obituaries anywhere. What makes this book so fascinating are the eulogies of unusualness: the victim of Great Britain's only criminal investigation for assault by a UFO. A hobo, and a beach bum. A eunuch who served China's last emperor. The last Native speaker of Eyak, a now-lost language. A man obsessed with the origin of "okay". A geisha who was a reluctant spy during World War II.

Think you don't have time to read? You do when you've got "The Economist Book of Obituaries". Pick up this heavy book, open anywhere, and dive in. Each eulogy is two pages in length, which means you won't be stuck in the middle of a long chapter nor will you feel bad about skipping any parts. The quirkiness factor is very high here, with biographies of statesmen next to those of inventors, followed by those of eccentrics in history.

If you have a curious mind, love the unusual, or if you turn to the obits page first thing in the morning, read "The Economist Book of Obituaries". This irresistible book will tickle you to death.

c.2008, Bloomberg Press
$29.95 / $34.95 Canada
409 pages

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