Books
Salvaging the past is a tough way to live, but archaeologists wouldn't have it any other way.
Are librarians obsolete in the Google era? They couldn't be more important
A former obituary writer celebrates the cult and culture of obituaries
Obituaries
Why were people so shattered when this rogue princess died?
After an early life controlled by her mother and her Hollywood studio, nobody would tell her how to live.
A salute to the great actress from Life Book's Katharine Hepburn: 1907-2003
He was talented and careless and pain followed him wherever he hid.
Essays
An avid reader’s wry take on books, past and present

Photo by Jennifer May, taken at Inquiring Minds bookstore, Saugerties, NY




LIVES IN RUINS

"Johnson has a knack for enlivening a potentially dry subject with vivid sketches, punchy quotes and lively scene-setting," Wendy Smith writes in her wonderful Washington Post review. "Despite her dutiful caveat that swashbuckling movie archaeologist Indiana Jones is a fantasy figure, Johnson acknowledges his mythic allure in an occupation still dominated by men: 'The guys all own fedoras and whips,' a female grad student confides. This is good fun, but it would be ephemeral fun if Johnson didn’t also possess the journalist’s ability to pinpoint essential information for general readers."

The Dallas Morning News gives Lives in Ruins a lovely review: "As archaeologists collect potsherds and spearpoints, Marilyn Johnson became a collector of archaeologists, tracking them to Machu Picchu and to Fishkill, N.Y., to a Caribbean slave plantation and a Philadelphia beer tasting. In Lives in Ruins, she sifts and sorts them, unearthing a treasury of rare characters."

Beautiful review of Lives in Ruins in The Boston Globe: "Johnson's book...prove[s} fascinating, and she is a funny and garrulous guide to the material...[she] artfully suggests the evocative lure of human rubble...[and] skillfully captures the vivid and quirky characters drawn to archaeology>'

Discover chooses Lives in Ruins a "worthy read for your holiday wish list," and notes that: "Johnson climbs into field trenches around the world, sweating and shoveling beside these unsung heroes. Through her, we come to appreciate their tenacity and drive, as well as how much we need them."

The bottom line in Julia Jenkins's Shelf Awareness review is: "Lives in Ruins will captivate a variety of readers: those who, like Johnson, dreamed of being archeologists; fans of history, anthropology or odd jobs; and people who respect the past and have an interest in preserving it. Johnson is merrily self-deprecating and funny in her anecdotes of the personalities she encounters, but also absolutely serious about the importance of their work. We are all the richer for Johnson's eloquent ode to this dirty job."

Laura Miller doesn't simply review Lives in Ruins for Salon; she weaves in her own experiences with archaeologists in her fascinating, detailed, and appreciative consideration of Salon's Book of the Week. After she quotes me about the beer an archaeologist re-created from residue found in King Midas's tomb-- "If beer is liquid bread, Midas Touch is liquid pound cake"-- she concludes, "As you might guess from these snippets, 'Lives in Ruins' is itself pretty delectable, a Midas Touch for the wannabe archaeologist's soul."

The Seattle Times recommends the book to the readers of that most literate city: "As she did in her best-selling 'The Dead Beat,' Johnson writes in a charming and thoughtful manner, weaving in her personal observations, insightful quotes from her subjects and a wide-eyed fascination. They come across as eccentric ('I have forty-five rats in my backyard to study,' said one), obsessive, driven and fun to be around. One graduate student also told her, 'When the Apocalypse comes, you want to know an archaeologist, because we know how to make fire, catch food, and create hill forts.' To which Johnson noted, 'I promptly added her to my address book.'"

Maclean's gives Lives in Ruins a thumbs up. The title "perfectly suits [this] story about the characters in the business: their passion, tenacity and sense of humour." After summing up some of the stories, critic Julia McKinnell quotes my archaeology teacher on the proto-human Australopithecenes: "The first thing you'd hear as you approached them is farting," and comments, "Who could forget a detail like that? Not Johnson. She passes [the archaeology] exam with flying colours and fills her book with every fun fact she comes across."

The venerable science journal Nature endorses Lives in Ruins: "In this gem of hands-on reportage, Marilyn Johnson delves into the lives of the pros behind the finds-- impossibly dedicated, beset by job insecurity and in love with the hidden and half-decayed. Packed with ace accounts of hard graft featuring the likes of flint-knapping paleoanthropologist John Shea and forensics specialist Kimberlee Moran, who studies the effects of explosions using pig carcasses."

Fun talk! Barbara Hoffert's lively Prepub Alert from Library Journal features a high-speed conversation we taped about archaeologists for Library Love Fest. Maybe it's not surprising that we kept talking after the shoot, down the elevator, and all the way uptown on the subway...

What a thrill to read K. Kris Hirst's profound and thoughtful appreciation of the book.The digital information site About.com has a lively archaeology section that she steers; I consulted it often while researching the book, and used Hirst's updates to follow the news of the field. In other words, she is a trusted authority.

"Archaeologists will recognize themselves in this book," Hirst writes. "Marilyn Johnson's book is funny--I often found myself laughing out loud--but it's also extremely perceptive, especially when she faces some of the less-attractive aspects of our obsession, in particular the colonial underbelly of the archaeological mindset. The ugly truth is every one of us thinks the past belongs to us as archaeologists, no matter where we were trained, born or bred or who we are descended from. No matter what we say to the contrary in print or in lectures. All of that is implied and forgiven in Johnson's neat phrase, that archaeology is the 'opposite of killing things.'" Hirst concludes with an unequivocal endorsement for professionals and dreamers alike: "You should read Lives in Ruins, if you are a practicing archaeologist, dreaming of a career in archaeology, have a child who is, or have retired from the field and spend your days recalling the conviviality at the end of a hard day's work digging holes far from home."

In a post titled PW Best Books 2014, PW editor Annie Coreno wrote, "I am a long time fan of Marilyn Johnson and I think she is dangerously good at what she does. By dangerously, I mean drop-what-you're-doing-start-a-new-career-path good." She concludes this fabulous endorsement: "[Lives in Ruins] holds a surprising amount of weight for such a fun, quick read. It's not the zany characters that make the book so enticing...it's their inspiring passion for their work, which Johnson chips away at with each archaeologist she follows, that makes this book profound."

Then PW put Lives in Ruins on a beautiful Best 100 Books of the Year list in some excellent company.

The Hudson Valley is fortunate to have vibrant arts coverage in the magazine Chronogram, and its latest issue contains an original, energetic, and charming review of Lives in Ruins. "Archaeologists are obsessive, stubborn, frequently unkempt, opinionated, and usually poor," Robert Burke Warren begins. "Nevertheless, Marilyn Johnson will make you want to be one, or maybe marry one." He calls the book "enormously entertaining," and so is his review.

Library Journal gave a beautiful starred review to Lives in Ruins: "Johnson’s wonderful and engaging work peels back the super­ficial glamour surrounding archaeology and archaeologists, offering an account that is a step above the typical book on the subject. Johnson’s contribution to this genre is unmatched. ­Without glitz, the author has created a very enjoyable work that will be appreciated by experts in the field and casual readers alike."

How have those in the field of archaeology reacted to my book about archaeologists? Here is an early endorsement from a working archaeologist. "It was love at first sight," Edward V. Curtin wrote on his blog Fieldnotes. He took the book's themes and particulars seriously, reviewed every chapter, and concluded: "Lives in Ruins is about archaeology’s Karma. It will change yours if you read it."

Lives in Ruins made the top ten list of LIBRARYREADS, the librarians' list of their favorite new reads in November!

Reviewed under the title "Books That Charm," Lives in Ruins got the nod from columnist Neal Wyatt of LIBRARY JOURNAL: "Taking readers deep into the mucky, dangerous, and mesmerizing world of contemporary archaeologists, Johnson provides a field guide to the newest discoveries and introduces experts who devote their lives to the exploration of the past. It is a rich, lively, and intriguing account, full of finds, lore, and—despite the romantic and thrilling image of Indiana Jones—reality."

Wyatt considered the book at greater length in LIBRARY JOURNALto point out that "Johnson is an amiable guide, with a wry sense of humor, an eye for the telling detail, and a great appreciation for the field," and she concludes: "Delightfully rambling, descriptive, and revelatory, Johnson’s completely engaging book is an addictive mix of immersion journalism, scientific reporting, and armchair travel."

KIRKUS REVIEWS compared me to Mary Roach and gave Lives in Ruins a beautiful starred review. "In her latest endeavor, [Johnson], who makes a habit of looking into atypical subjects and then writing about them with brio and dash, takes on the discipline of archaeology, which is on a bit of a hot streak...Throughout, she demonstrates a learned hand in her minibiographies of various practitioners of the discipline...Johnson casts her net widely [but] she’s also mesmerized by the smaller-scale elements: gorgeous blue beads from the wreck of an old galleon... and the pure, magical allure of the lost: 'significant sites that are so humble in appearance, or buried, or otherwise hidden.' An engrossing examination of how archaeologists re-create much of human history, piece by painstaking piece."

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY gave Lives in Ruins a starred and enthusiastic review: “In this lively love letter to archaeologists, former Esquire editor Johnson (This Book is Overdue!) travels the world, getting her hands dirty as she studies archaeologists in their natural habitats. She displays infectious enthusiasm for the material...Her experiences are eye-opening, engaging, and occasionally frustrating, and she talks about the downsides of the occupation: 'Those who persevere in this profession fight like cats to get these jobs and work like dogs to keep them. And for all their expertise, competence, breadth of experience, and even cockiness, they are continually humbled by their subject. For people who know so much, there is so much they can never know.' But, as Johnson states, it’s all about 'trying to locate a spark of the human life that had once touched that spot there.' Many archaeologists credit Indiana Jones with sparking their passion, and Johnson may well inspire a new generation to take up this calling."

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY also ran my personal essay, "How I Got Dirty," about being an indoor person who tackles the outdoor subject of archaeology.


Reviews for THIS BOOK IS OVERDUE!


THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW featured Overdue in a wonderful review by Pagan Kennedy. She describes my search for a half-remembered passage about information overload, then writes: "If Johnson herself displays symptoms of information sickness, she has a glorious form of the disease." She calls the book fascinating, and declares that "Johnson writes best when she’s meandering and browsing, in the manner of a woozy reader exploring the stacks. In her most absorbing passages, I felt as if I were back in the children’s library, scrutinizing a volume of the World Book Encyclopedia, where the entry on 'pachyderm' sat near the disquisition on 'pachysandra,' a kind of ground cover. Johnson’s book carries the same kind of associative magic. Rather than taking us on a brisk, orderly march, she lets us ride on the swaying back of an elephant, glimpsing treasures glimmering through the fronds of pachysandra." Read more.


The information service RESOURCE SHELF covered Overdue with enthusiasm, and in a post announcing my SALON.COM interview, declared: "Once again, Johnson does an amazing job answering [questions]. She should be the keynote speaker at just about every library related conference and then hired to work for each of those organizations as their marketing director." Read more.


USA TODAY called it "a humorous, unabashed love letter to the men and women who used to toil quietly in stacks but now circulate in cyberspace" in an important article by Craig Wilson about the perilous state of American libraries. Read more.


Kim Schmidt of the CHICAGO SUN-TIMES wrote,"Johnson makes it clear that she was always a lover of libraries, but that she became inspired to write about them when she was researching her earlier, brilliantly written book on obituary writers, The Dead Beat. 'With the exception of a few showy eccentrics … the most engaging obit subjects were librarians. I began to get the idea that libraries were where it was happening.' And happening it is." She concludes this dream review: "With this joyful and absorbing look into the world of librarians, Johnson has filled a desperately needed gap in our understanding, and she will inspire her readers to feel as she does: thank goodness for librarians."



“When I started at the library, saying you disliked technology was still acceptable. By the time I left, that admission would earn you a pitying, not to say incredulous, look," wrote librarian Tricia Springstubb in THE PLAIN DEALER. "Marilyn Johnson gets all this and more...She pays homage to a profession undergoing a mind-boggling transition...

"This cheerful book is full of personalities...[and] Johnson doesn't skimp on the trials of faltering computer systems, or the gross things patrons can leave on the shelves...Chances are good that if you read this book, it'll be a library copy. When you return it, even if it's overdue, smile at that nice person behind the desk.” Read more.


“Ms. Johnson's enthusiasm for libraries and the people who work in them is refreshingly evident throughout the book," stated Christine Rosen in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. "In a charming if meandering style, she samples from her conversations with traditional librarians and with ‘cybrarians,’ a catch-all term for a generation of librarians intent on finding ways to integrate the old mission of the library with the new possibilities of technology. A good observer with a keen eye for detail, Ms. Johnson...succeeds in making us like librarians.” Read more.


THE BOSTON GLOBE wrote, "As Johnson amply shows in her romp through the brave new world of the profession, [the] new librarians cum information scientists are building on the work of their pioneering predecessors as they branch out in sometimes surprising directions.” Read more.


Overdue was one of the hot reads at THE DAILY BEAST, which called it "A stirring defense of the role of librarians in our Internet Age."


"Librarians have a champion in Johnson, yet her clear bias takes nothing away from the book, partly because she builds a solid case for their existence," wrote Kim Ode in the THE STAR TRIBUNE. "This is where librarians are our best allies, and Johnson thankfully adopts a 'show, don't tell' approach. She takes us behind the reference desk to witness the shift to an online digital catalog (not a pretty sight); introduces us to the often cynical world of librarians who blog (InfoFetishist, Obnoxious Librarian from Hades); reveals the heretofore unimagined challenge of poop in the library (really!), and interviews the "Street Librarians" at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul who decided that, as masters of reference material, they could be of some service, whether to protesters or politicians." Read more.


"Johnson’s exquisite book taps into the radical changes that libraries are going through," wrote Dylan Foley of the NEWARK STAR-LEDGER. "She blows apart the librarian stereotypes of stiff, prim matrons. Librarians have blogs now, some have extensive tattoos and funky haircuts, but in Johnson’s eyes, they are still committed 'intellectual social workers,' educating whoever comes through their doors in the face of brutal budget cuts." Read more.


CONFESSIONS OF AN IDIOSYNCRATIC MIND made This Book Is Overdue! a Pick of the Week, writing: "I don't go to the library enough, but Johnson's paean to the institution - and the range of people, from old-school types dragged into the present to punk-haired, social media-savvy types loudly getting out the word, who are both bound up and pushing hard against tradition - is a swift boot in the rear reminder why I, and others, should do the exact opposite of ignoring them. From free speech to scatologocal tales, personal stories to larger themes, THIS BOOK IS OVERDUE! is, well, very much overdue."


The wonderful site, BOOKPAGE, gave a ringing endorsement to the GLORIOUSLY GEEKY Overdue. Reviewer Amy Scribner wrote: "Energetic, winningly acerbic and DOWNRIGHT FUN, This Book is Overdue will leave you convinced that librarians really can save the world."


PUBLISHERS WEEKLY gave This Book Is Overdue! a STARRED REVIEW that praises the book for "illuminating the state of the modern librarian with humor and authority" and concludes, "Johnson’s wry report is A MUST-READ for anyone who’s used a library in the past quarter century."


O MAGAZINE gave This Book Is Overdue!a wonderful review in their February issue. "This is a book for readers who know that words can be wild and dangerous, that uncensored access to information is a right and a privilege, and that the attempt to 'catalog the world in all its complexity' is heroic beyond compare."


LIBRARY JOURNAL agreed that this book about cutting-edge librarians was overdue. They gave it an extraordinary welcome, posting a set of video interviews in the issue with an enthusiastic review. The reviewer, Donna L. Davey, a librarian at NYU, wrote that "Librarians and archivists, in all their eccentric, tech-savvy, and service-oriented glory, are celebrated in this highly complimentary and lively survey of their professions and THIS SPIRITED BOOK WILL BE ENJOYED BY ALL WHO LOVE LIBRARIES, or are poised to discover their value."

In an earlier issue, the editor-in-chief of LIBRARY JOURNAL, Francine Fialkoff, wrote: "Just in time to lift the dispirited, a forthcoming book by a nonlibrarian captures the breathtaking transformations in the field in recent years and those responsible for them. Journalist Marilyn Johnson, a former Life and Esquire staffer and an obit expert (The Dead Beat, HarperCollins), makes a case for becoming a librarian in her kaleidoscopic This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All (HarperCollins, Feb. 2010). She ferrets out the blogs and bloggers; dives into cataloging, systems, Second Life, and digital collections and delivery; attends the opening of the new Darien Library; and hangs out with the Connecticut Four, who challenged the Patriot Act, and the Desk Set, a group of young, funny, smart New York librarians who raise money for literacy, among other things...WHO KNEW librarianship and LIBRARIANS WERE SO COOL, other than us insiders?"

And Barbara Hoffert's Prepub Alert in LIBRARY JOURNAL declared, "Johnson, bless her heart, argues that in the Age of Google, librarians are more important than ever. And she tells the story of a bunch of cutting-edge 'cybrarians' to make the point. With a 40,000-copy first printing; not bad!"


EARLYWORD told librarians heading to their convention, "If you have time to hunt down just one galley at MidWinter, go directly to HarperCollins’ booth for This Book is Overdue! And, overdue it is; finally, a book written for a general audience that gives librarians the respect we deserve and recognizes how important, rather than irrelevant, we are in the digital age."


BOOKLIST gave This Book Is Overdue! a fine welcome. "Johnson’s paean to this new generation of librarians demolishes superannuated myths and stereotypes of fusty librarians filing catalog cards and collecting fines for overdue books, and replaces that with a vision of the profession’s future where librarians serve as guardians and guides to information in cyberspace," writes Mark Knoblauch. "These ROCK STAR LIBRARIANS maneuver their way through a labyrinthine network of glowing computer-terminal screens to retrieve whatever answers patrons may seek. If that’s not high calling enough, librarians stand tall as superhero sentinels bravely beating back every assault on civil liberties and Constitutional government." Rock-star librarians-- sweet!

And Vanessa Bush, whose Minority Report blog appears on the BOOKLIST site, wrote, "I was thrilled to read the review of This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson and see how the image of librarians may be shifting into cool."


Check out the fantastic review from Jenna Freedman in her LOWER EAST SIDE LIBRARIAN blog. Freedman is the subject of the chapter "To the Ramparts!" but that was no guarantee of her enthusiasm, and I know she was alarmed at the idea of a book about librarians that had no index. This pales in light of all the things she thinks the book got right, like: "So often people wax on about libraries being so great, vs. librarians. As if the former could really be anything without the labor of the latter. Not Johnson, and I appreciate that! You'll want to just kiss her for this quote, 'So when I hear this snarky question (and I hear it everywhere): Are librarians obsolete in the Age of Google? All I can say is, are you kidding?...'"
I did, by the way, promise her an online index to the book. I'm working on it!


This Book Is Overdue! "documents in a VIVID AND WITTY style how libraries are changing (and struggling to change) to meet the demands and expectations of digital-age consumers," according to Richard James of DELAWARE LIBRARIES, and was "amazing to read."


"...here in book form is the appreciation that information professionals have long needed and long deserved," wrote Birdie at LISNEWS in a sweet review that concluded "...with the finely-tuned ability of an investigative journalist, Johnson shows us the stories behind the story and the vibrant and unique personalities behind the buns, beards, tattoos and cardigan sweaters."


"...this is something that everyone needs to know about...the book that every librarian needs to buy–yes, buy; and also gift to every friend and family member you have," says The Librarienne at CLOSED STACKS before her interview. Thanks, Librarienne!


"In a time of economic stress, when librarians are needed more than ever, yet library budgets are being cut, Marilyn Johnson speaks out in our behalf in her forthcoming book This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All. Her message to anyone who will listen is that librarians are the 'authors of opportunity,'" reported Rick Roche in his blog RICKLIBRARIAN. He mentioned his favorite chapters in this "long anticipated" and "always fair" book, and recommended it to colleagues. "Her praises" of the profession, he noted, "greatly overshadow her criticisms."


"Marilyn Johnson has gone to our conferences, interviewed us, raised a glass with us, and visited us virtually. And now she’s here at THE DESK SET to answer five questions, plus a bonus round, about her forthcoming book." The Desk Set blog is all over This Book Is Overdue! in a Q and A between Jessica Pigza (one of the librarians featured in the book) and the author called, appropriately, "This Interview Is Early."

Reviews for THE DEAD BEAT



"This delightful quirk of a book is not dark or morose; it's an uplifting, joyous, life-affirming read for people who ordinarily steer clear of uplifting, joyous, life-affirming reads….Of all the personalities captured in 'The Dead Beat,' few are more endearing than Johnson, a former obituary writer. Her enthusiasm is infectious.…Writers interested in honing the craft should inhale this book. Who else might profit or delight from reading about obituaries? Just about anyone who's not yet in one, I'd wager."
--Mary Roach
The Los Angeles Times

"In The Dead Beat, Marilyn Johnson - an obituarist herself - acts as our Virgil through the back pages, introducing the knowledgeable, eccentric and talented writers responsible for sending off the just and the unjust, the famous and the not-so-famous."
The Observer (London)

"...while Johnson's analysis of the form and its top practitioners is absorbing, her account of the culture of obituary lovers is downright amazing."
--Jane and Michael Stern
The NY Times Book Review


LISTEN
Marilyn Johnson
NPR's Morning Edition

**** (4 stars)
--Francine Prose
People

"....a smart, tart and
often hilarious tiptoe
through the tombstones."
Parade

"I think it will be the sleeper book of the year."
--Don Murray
The Boston Globe

"A fetching book about obituaries? Well, yes:
Ms. Johnson writes about obituaries with the
zeal--and insight--of an avid obit fan."

Michiko Kakutani
The New York Times

"If you have ever, once, reveled in the obit page, you'll be reading aloud from these fan's notes by a former Life obit writer. She's been obsessively clipping for years and shares the choice shockers and tearjerkers -- along with an infectious reverence for the form. Only irresistible lives live here."
More

"Open this enormously entertaining book and your life will contain three certainties: death, taxes and an overwhelming desire to turn the pages."
--Peter Rowe
The San Diego Union-Tribune

"The Dead Beat is a romp of a book that captures with well-placed humor the curious assortment of people featured in the obits, as well as those who write them, read them, collect them and - well - simply are obsessed with them."
--Verna Noel Jones
The Rocky Mountain News

"Marilyn Johnson shares her obsession in exuberant and elegiac style."
--Michael Ollove
The Baltimore Sun

"What Marilyn Johnson thought would be 'a little cult book' is turning into one of the most admired books of the season."
--Joe Meyers
The Connecticut Post

"If you've ever wanted to know the secrets behind the obituary - and there are some juicy, fascinating ones to be had - Marilyn Johnson's wonderful 'The Dead Beat' (HarperCollins) is the book for you."
CNN.com


"Marilyn Johnson is such a beautiful writer, and is so at ease and funny about the forbidden subject of death, that you find yourself cheering when the obit writer gets it right and the dead person gets his due."

Betsy Carter
Broadsheet

Entertainment Weekly

Publishers Weekly Q & A

"Marilyn Johnson's new book The Dead Beat is an epiphany of epiphanies of epiphanies. Her writing, like good poetry, opens your eyes to see the extraordinary in the ordinary to the degree that you have to wonder where her sizeable skills end and where grace begins....Ms. Johnson reminds us, to riff on a line from Thomas Merton, that all of these ordinary folks walk around blind to themselves but shining like the sun."
--Jim Street


"...This is a jewel of a book joyfully free of typographical and grammatical errors..."
--a reader on Amazon.com