Sunday, 11 October 2009

Obit essentials

An obituary is a mini biography, but not "warts and all": de mortuis nil nisi bono is a maxim* still followed, even in these debunking times. As this brief guide from The Guardian emphasizes, the obit should make clear "how good a person was and what a loss their death represents."

Following our talk on Friday I have now received this interesting text from Christopher Lucas, whose obituary of the architect Sam Lloyd has yet to be published.


If possible, give the main subject or a significant episode a good run before the born in biography starts.

born in [where?]
(maiden name)
line on family background
school(s), college/university, what studied, and year(s)

The object of the exercise is to produce highly readable accounts of notable lives so that general readers can get at least something out of even the most specialist figures. Information, arguments and ideas want to be conveyed with a minimum of explicit tribute, so that readers build their own picture of how good a person was and what a loss their death represents. For an academic, the emphasis should be on original research and its impact rather than on university administration. For a scientist, technologist or mathematician, it's always good to demonstrate parallels, practical outcomes and applications.

The narrative wants to move quickly, taking readers from start to finish in a single sweep before they've realised it. If it starts feeling slow, then it's not working. Please make the chronology clear by giving years wherever possible for degrees, events, books, films and recordings.

If you knew the person and think it appropriate, use just their first name after the first mention of the name and surname at the start; in that case, it's good to include a first-person reference to indicate your relationship to the person.

§ name of spouse/partner (with year of marriage if readily available) surviving family, with numbers of sons/daughters, not mentioning the fact of any adoption (grandchildren and divorced spouses aren't needed, though the fact of any previous marriages should be mentioned)

§ writer's name

§ in the tag at the end: full name including middle names, occupation, date of birth, date of death


* General maxim: was it Lord Macaulay or Dr Johnson?

The hero of some of the thrillers by Gavin Lyall is a Major Maxim, who gave as his reason why he would never succeed in his profession of arms Dr Johnson's dictum "There is nothing more useless than a general maxim".

I now have Boswell's Life of Johnson in the Gutenberg edition on my hard drive, and this does not contain the phrase "general maxim". Googling the phrase leads to which gives the coiner as Lord Macaulay, without stating the source. Given that this is correct, is my memory faulty, or was that of Gavin Lyall? In either case, does this suggest that anything that sounds maxim-like is by default attributed to The Great Cham?

Our reading for last week’s tutorial referred to an article in the New Scientist (McCrone 2003) about falsification of memory: this post prompts me to read the article next week.

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