That would be “the first draft of biography.”

Beware of first drafts.

We all know what you get when you give enough monkeys enough typewriters and time. But what happens when you give 100 obituary writers a juicy subject (such as James), 100 keyboards, and a quick deadline?

The answer, I’ve found, is a fascinating array of perspectives on that subject, a relatively well-rounded view of the person, a good deal of conflicting information, and the occasional far-out, freakishly tantalizing unrepeated tidbit (e.g. “attacked with a knife”) whose original source begs to be chased down.

This was true with the comparatively few obituaries of Bob Switzer, and even more so for James, who was much more prominent. It takes a fair amount of effort to pare away and straighten out the inaccuracies that inevitably result from the obit writers’ limited time, familiarity with the subject, and access to primary sources.

I’m not complaining, though. I’d much rather have those 100 obituaries — or even just 10, or 1 — than not. In many cases, they represent the world’s — and nonfiction writers’ — last chance to catch a glimpse of an intriguing life. After all, it was from Switzer’s obituary in The New York Times that I got the idea that the invention of Day-Glo just might make an interesting children’s book.