Book review: The Book of the Dead: Lives of the Justly Famous and the Undeservedly Obscure

The Book of the Dead.The Book of the Dead: Lives of the Justly Famous and the Undeservedly Obscure by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received this for a birthday present, and have only just completed it. I don’t know why it took so long for me to pull it off the shelf, but I’m glad I did. It’s full of wry humour and life lessons, though it imparts these without being preachy. Plus, it has a boss front cover. I mean, a skeleton wearing a dunce cap? Nice.

This book is a Who’s Who of dead people. Except rather than being an alphabetical collection, it’s thematic – the corpses are bundled together by theme rather than surname, which means you get to have a section where Epicurus rubs shoulders with Benjamin Franklin and Moll Cutpurse (because they were all happy-go-lucky), as well as a section where the dead are united by monkeys.

Yes, monkeys.

This title was formerly released as The QI Book of the Dead, or so I discovered after I’d finished reading it. That explains the slightly off-the-wall curatorial approach. One of the co-authors was involved in The Meaning Of Liff, Douglas Adams’ work on toponyms, which gave place-names to objects and feelings for which there is no definition. Kind of like trying to describe saudade but with Scunthorpe as the signifier. This is very much in the same wry vein.

The humour is as you’d expect from people involved in the QI shebang: literate, funny and full of arcana which one could happily imagine being ready aloud by Stephen Fry. Each portrait is short enough to provide a brief sketch of the key parts of people’s lives, some trivia which while undoubtedly useless in everyday life, still appears crucially important, and a general feeling of achievement.

Achievement? Wait, what?

Yes, achievement. Reading this book feels a little like injecting biographies into your brain. It’s a bit of cheating, really, as the detail given is pretty much the study notes versions of people’s lives, but there is a great satisfaction in the delivery. Sure, you can learn a lot from these items – such as the fact that Casanova was ugly and that Ben Franklin’s famed kite experiment didn’t work as recorded, or else he’d be dead – but these potted lives seem designed to be savoured rather than learned by rote.

The most satisfying part of this book is that everyone in it is dead. There’s no comebacks from the grave. Bold, bastards, brilliant – they’re all in the dirt, or ashes now. And though you would expect there to be an air of morbidity throughout a work designed to detail the departures of its inhabitants, there’s not really that sense of self-flagellating memento mori. Yes, it’s about death, but it is blessedly free of that kind of despair – there’s just an acceptance.

The last chapter is perhaps the most hopeful. It’s longer than some of the others, and ponders what happens after death. Or, at least, it ponders the lives of some of those who pondered what happened after death. The works of Blake, Bentham and Bucky Fuller are all covered, leading to discourses on spirituality and the perception of God, the frailty (and postmortem use) of the human frame, as well as our stewardship and potential to abuse the little ball we call home. Though each story here is about one person’s life, it blows the perspective wide open – it calls upon the reader to question those ideas these people gave their lives to investigate, and by extension, to think about what those areas mean to us, individually.

I’m not a big fan of death. I don’t know what it is, but I’m not altogether happy about the fact it’s due to come for me at some time. I will make an effort to do so, and this book helps, in a small way, me to move towards that satisfaction with my own mortality. It’s perhaps fitting that early in the work, we meet Epicurus, whose philosophy is described, neatly, in four sentences:

Don’t fear God.
Don’t worry about death.
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure.

It’s possibly throwaway, given the thousands of years of philosophy which have intervened since, but the first two lines are pretty good descriptors of this book. It demystifies something all too often wrapped in black crepe and left unspoken-of. It’s something that we all have to come to, and this little collection may make the approach just that little bit more lighthearted and easier. It’s a tall order, not worrying about death, but it’s curious that for a book on the subject, I spent my reading time doing exactly that.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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