I wrote earlier this week about a personal connection to this year’s obituary list, but recent postings on FictionL and this superb obituary collection on The Reader’s Advisor Online are a reminder that it’s time to take that annual moment and reflect on all the writers lost in the last year. Book groups are in a fine position to give fallen literary heroes more than just a moment.
A superb annual tradition for groups would be to devote a January meeting to those who died in the year before. Copy or prepare a list of authors and ask each of your readers to select one of them and read at least one of his or her works. Bring biographical information to the meeting to pass around. Share stories about how the works of these writers influenced you. Read sample passages aloud. Another variation would be to open the theme up to everyone who died in the prior year and included biographies among the reading options.
I’ve seen years where the obituary roll was heavier than 2009’s, but even in a “quiet” year, the list can be overwhelming. John Updike is perhaps this year’s giant. I never completed the Rabbit Angstrom series, and but it now seems appropriate to finish it and put Rabbit at Rest. J. G. Ballard will influence writers and readers for years. Look into the mammoth new edition of his complete stories if you need proof.
Mystery lovers have much to mourn: John Mortimer, Stuart Kaminsky, Barbara Parker, William G. Tapply and Lyn Hamilton are gone, to name only the most obvious. My beloved fantasy genre lost giants as well: David Eddings, Robert Holdstock, and Louise Cooper. One of the last great bards of the western, Elmer Kelton said happy trails. Let’s hope the afterworld is as interesting for Philip Jose Farmer as he made it for readers in To Your Scattered Bodies Go.
We lost the Teacher Man, Frank McCourt; the Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald, and word wizard William Safire.
Two writers on the list published well-received first novels later than usual in life–Michael Cox and Millard Kaufman–but both died soon after. Especially premature deaths are perhaps the saddest. E. Lynn Harris, who wrote with great success about gay black men like himself was only 54 when heart disease struck him down.
I would encourage everyone to visit a library and check out one or two books by those we’ve lost. Writers leave behind a special way for us to remember them, for their ideas to carry on through the years. It’s a special gift in which we should all indulge.