I realised, while reading The New York Times‘ extremely good obituary of Gore Vidal, that I have stopped reading newspapers. I still read magazines; I still read the news; I am still saving up for an iPad; but I have stopped reading the news-papers. I’ll buy one every now and again, but it’s so rare now that I can’t pretend that I am a paper buyer. It must have happened during the last year. I probably held out longer than most. I am a journalist, for pete’s sake.
I knew it for sure while I was digesting Vidal’s wonderful life because I realised that I had not read an obituary for a long time – months, probably. Obituaries are among the first thing I turn to in a physical paper. They are a convenient length – a tube stop or two – normally well written, and, unlike the news most of the time, provide such a natural weight and form of information. There must be something inherently absorbable about the story of a human life. We are attuned to take it in. There is nothing quite like it: the uncoiling of love (or its significant absence), the way they came to learn about the world and, almost always in the case of the obituarised, some satisfying portion of success. You very rarely come across a obituary with nothing remotely admirable in it, and usually it is the absolute opposite. Here is an all-time favourite: Tickets please, Werner Heubeck.
Obituaries also say something about community. They are survivors from the 19th century template of what a newspaper, and a nation, should be. The selection from the waves of passing dead reflects the standards, the aspirations, the interests that bind living readers. British newspapers have their distinct tastes: The Guardian‘s apparently inexhaustible hunger (really?) for minor jazz musicians and recording artists (JD Smith, the finest session alto-saxophonist in late 1960s Louisville, he once shared a cab with Count Basie) vs The Daily Telegraph, with the “last Telegraph Services obituarist to have served in the Second World War” (my grandfather).
Dead Vidal made me think more carefully than normal about obituaries because they have also been a way for me to discover writers. I know the death of any artist revitalises interest in their work, but I am also talking about coming across writers for the very first time about a week after they died. I remember reading the obituary of Sybille Bedford and deciding to read her books, and George Psychoundakis (more of a runner than a writer, to be fair). For the better known and who are in the always-accumulating queue, like Ryszard Kapuściński (in 2007) and Vidal last week, their death has acted as a quiet signal, an end to excuses, a move to the front, and then I have begun to read and to become immediately and irrationally sad for the writer I never knew and only now know because they are dead. I have that now with Vidal after “Coached by Camelot” (so fine) and I am sure the feeling will grow. But without obituaries, without news-papers, how will I find the rest, the quieter passers? What is the digital answer; what is our digital mourning?