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"Two Guys Read the Obituaries"

Book Review

"Two Guys Read the Obituaries"

By Steve Chandler and Terrence Hill
Reviewed By Steven Siegel

When the editor at The Actuary first approached me to review the book "Two Guys Read the Obituaries," I must admit to an overwhelming feeling of queasy self–consciousness. What exactly were the character traits of mine that led the editor to think I was a suitable choice to review a book about obituaries? After reassuring myself that I was chosen because I've previously reviewed books for The Actuary, rather than any personality similarities to the death–obsessed character played by Bud Cort in the classic "Harold and Maude," a number of questions immediately sprang to mind.

First, why would two friends about to turn 60–Steve Chandler and Terrence Hill–write a book that is essentially a diary of daily correspondence between them on the obituaries that appeared in the New York Times over a year? An obvious answer to the question is that, plain and simple, obituaries are interesting. I would venture to say that I am not alone in first turning to the obituaries section every morning when I read the New York Times. But, why are they interesting and so compelling to read, at least for me? My theory is that there are two types of novel readers–those who can wait to find out what happens at the end and those who can't. I can't wait. And this is one reason I find obituaries so fascinating–you know how it ends.

Second, would actuaries find reading this book to be of any interest? Besides thinking that many actuaries are like myself and can't wait until the end of a novel, another answer to this question occurred to me early on when I was reading the book; to be precise, on the first page of the book–the Jan. 1, 2005 correspondence. You might recall that the horrific Indian Ocean tsunami happened within days of this particular New Year's Day. Hill, in his first letter of the book, describes how on that day, he chose to spend most of his time reading about the death of Susan Sontag, rather than the front page story of 100,000 plus estimated deaths from the tsunami. Why would he make this choice? Hill explains that for him reading about one death is essentially a celebration of life; however, 100,000 deaths are simply, in his words, "beyond our comprehension" and "almost impossible to make any sense of. ..."

In this regard, I find a direct parallel in his observations to the work that actuaries do. We are accustomed to working with large datasets (insured lives, claimants, etc.) and crunching them into meaningful numbers. This type of analysis can be very enlightening, precisely because it is only when we compact the information down to our own capacity of comprehension, that it can ultimately be useful. Furthermore, we are informed not only by processing large datasets, but also by in–depth examination of small samples of individual lives, claims, etc., which ensures we have not missed critical patterns and relationships, i.e., a classic reasonability check.

I can't think of a better actuarial–related example to illustrate this type of perspective than the current health care crisis. The more you hear estimates of the number of uninsured persons in the United States (be it 44, 45 or 46 million), the more the sheer immensity of those numbers no longer conveys any meaning. We simply cannot relate to numbers of that magnitude. But, listen to the personal story of someone financially ruined for life because of a lack of health insurance coverage and you know, undoubtedly, that there is a crisis.

It's the same mode of thinking with the obituaries in this book. There is a certain perspective on the vast complexity of the human condition that you can only gain when you read stories of individuals that have lived and passed on. Related to this, I found the book most engaging and thought–provoking when the authors provided their personal reflections on the passing of a well–known individual. But, in more than a few instances, the type of provocation I felt could only be characterized as profound disagreement and puzzlement at some of their opinions.

For example, here is an excerpt from Chandler's entry on April 12, 2005 reflecting on the death of Nobel prize–winning author Saul Bellow: "Bellow's best books are Ravelstein and The Actual. In my opinion." Huh? I would venture to say he is the only person in the world with this opinion. I certainly do not claim to be a literary critic, but I have read Bellow extensively and my wife recently lectured on Bellow as part of the nationwide NextBook series. There is no way, in my opinion, these are Bellow's best books. But, don't take my opinion. Here is what Philip Roth, considered by many to be the greatest living American writer, said upon winning the first PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction: "The Adventures of Augie March (by Bellow) is the most important book published in English in the second half of the 20th century."

In belaboring my disagreement on Bellow, I don't intend to be overly critical, but, rather to illustrate a point. The nature of our existence is such that all of us form our own unique views on any one individual quite differently over the course of a lifetime. Yet, each opinion is just as valid as the other in that each of us ultimately is celebrating life itself, for all its good and bad. And this I find is the essential message of the book. For a profession that is sometimes grossly mischaracterized as "telling people when they are going to die," this can be a life–affirming message, indeed.

Steven Siegel is a research actuary for the Society of Actuaries.