I appreciate obituaries. Reading an essay by Gustav Leonhardt in an Economist magazine a few years ago reminded me that an account of a person’s life, written at the time of his or her death, can be very life-affirming. I like reading and collecting epitaphs for the same reason though they require a little imagination and creativity recreating a life from only a few spare snippets.
I had never heard of Leonhardt and thought it a shame my first exposure to his life was just after his death. He was an artist whose medium was the harpsichord. The article said his “life-work was to persuade the world how beautiful the harpsichord was, and how the harpsichord repertoire should be played.” I admire the passion and vigor he brought to his craft. Reading the account I could picture him as a student, sitting in the Vienna library “tirelessly hand-copying” piles of original scores. He was supposed to have been studying conducting at the time, but spent his time collecting ancient music instead. When I avoid work, I seldom replace it with something even more rigorous.
And that reminds me, I’ve been wondering if writing down quotes from books and articles I’m reading, might be a valuable thing to do. I learn about poetry from memorizing a poem. Why not learn about a good sentence by copying one down? I think I’m going to try it, and add that as another idea for living the literary life. See there? I got an idea for something I want to do by reading this short summary of a person’s life. Obituaries are also nice if you don’t have time for a full-blown, book-length biography even if one existed. Many interesting people never have a biography written about them, so thank goodness for the obit! I also like the obituary’s style. They have an arm-over-the-shoulder-let-me-give-it-to-you-straight kind of feel that appeals to me.
The article said that Leonhardt searched for historical authenticity in his music. His favorite harpsichord was constructed from 18th century wood. He strove to figure out, apparently an almost impossible task, how Bach would have played a particular piece. His performances were, to the fullest degree possible, true to how the music would have been played in the 1700s when it was written. Reading about his life made me think about my life and the attention and passion I bring, or don’t, to living.
Consider reading obituaries. It can be a life-affirming and also literary thing to do. You could read one a week. Type the name of a newspaper and the word “obituaries” in your search engine and see what appears. Type in “Washington Post obituaries” or “New York Times obituaries” for usually well-written articles about better-known people, leaders in the arts, industry, government. Type the name of your own community’s paper for more of the home-town view. I typed in “Indianapolis Star obituaries” and though they weren’t written quite as well as in those other papers, the stories were still inspiring and positive.