Marilyn Johnson (author)

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Marilyn Johnson is an American writer (b. 1954) and the author of the nonfiction books Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble (Harper, 2014); This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All (Harper Perennial, 2011); and The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries (Harper Perennial, 2007)—three professions that Johnson says “contribute immeasurably to our collective cultural memory,” and “are less a job than a passionate calling.”[1] Publishers Weekly called Johnson “dangerously good at what she does. By dangerously, I mean drop-what-you're-doing-start-a-new-career-path good,” and named Lives in Ruins one of the 100 best books of 2014.[2]


Johnson has a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania.[3] She studied with poet Charles Simic at the University of New Hampshire, then began working for fiction editor Rust Hills at Esquire in 1978.[4] She edited articles at Esquire, Redbook, and Outside, and was a staff writer for Life,[5] where she wrote profiles and obituaries of celebrities, including Diana, Princess of Wales.[6] In 2015, she wrote the Smithsonian’s story about the excavation of four leaders of Jamestown Colony.[7]

Johnson’s first book, The Dead Beat, “explores the world of obituaries—both the journalists who write them and the readers who love them.”[8] The New York Times Book Review called it “[A] fascinating book about the art, history, and subculture of obituary writing” and singled out its chapters on obituary fans and readers as “downright amazing.”[9]

This Book Is Overdue!, Johnson's second book, looked at the field of librarianship as it responded and adapted to the digital age with creativity, humor, and occasionally, panic. It received a Washington Irving Book Award, as did The Dead Beat.[10][11] Library Journal called it a “kaleidoscopic” book “by a non-librarian [that] captures the breathtaking transformations in the field in recent years,” and noted that her subjects ranged from digital cataloging and collections to savvy young urban librarians and the Connecticut Four, who challenged the Patriot Act.[12] The book was embraced by librarians[13][14] and Johnson subsequently spoke on the importance of librarians and libraries in the digital age at library conferences across the U.S.[15] She is a founding member of Authors for Libraries, which is affiliated with the American Library Association.[16]

In her 2014 book, Lives in Ruins, Johnson “captures the vivid and quirky characters drawn to archaeology.”[17] She writes about contemporary archaeologists in the context of their work in the field in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Machu Picchu, Australia, Asia, the U.K., Africa, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, and multiple other stateside locations. Nature called it a “gem of hands-on reportage,”[18] and archaeologists confirmed it as an accurate portrait of the profession, particularly with respect to the scarcity of paying jobs and the challenges of preservation in a dynamic world.[19][20]

Personal life[edit]

Johnson has three children with her husband, editor Rob Fleder.[21] Johnson is a former fellow at the Purchase College Writers Center[22] and has also published poetry as Marilyn A. Johnson.[23] She lives in the Hudson Valley in New York.[24]


  • Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble (2014, Harper); (ISBN 978-0062127181)
  • This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All (2011, Harper Perennial); (ISBN 978-0061431616)
  • The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries (2007, Harper Perennial); (ISBN 978-0060758769)


  1. ^ “How I Got Dirty”, by Marilyn Johnson, in Publishers Weekly, published 26 September 2014; retrieved 28 January 2015.
  2. ^ “PW Best Books 2014: 'Lives in Ruins' by Marilyn Johnson” by Annie Coreno, in Publishers Weekly on Tumblr, published 24 October 2014; retrieved 27 January 2015
  3. ^ Barnes & Noble, Inc. Retrieved 6 December 2014.
  4. ^ River of Words: Portraits of Hudson Valley Writers, by Nina Shengold. State University of New York Press: 2010 978-1-4384-3424-4 pg 109. Retrieved 6 December 2014. “she was hired as assistant to legendary Esquire fiction editor Rust Hills”
  5. ^ The Free Library. Retrieved 27 January 2015
  6. ^ “The Day the Fairytale Died”, at The Daily Beast; published 12 July 2014; retrieved 27 January 2015
  7. ^ “New Jamestown Discovery Reveals the Identities of Four Prominent Settlers”, at Smithsonian Magazine; published 28 July 2015; retrieved 5 August 2015
  8. ^ “Marilyn Johnson on Writing About the Dead, Not the Dying”, by Gal Beckerman, at Columbia Journalism Review; published 17 March 2006; retrieved 27 January 2015
  9. ^ “Dying to Appear”, by Jane and Michael Stern, at The New York Times Book Review; published 12 March 2006; retrieved 27 January 2015
  10. ^ Westchester Library Association; 2011 Washington Irving Awards
  11. ^ Westchester Library Association; 2007 Washington Irving Awards
  12. ^ “Lousy Job Market, Great Career” by Francine Fialkoff, Library Journal; published 15 October 2009; retrieved 27 January 2015
  13. ^ “Marilyn Johnson is Fun and Emphatic in 'This Book Is Overdue!'” by Tricia Springstubb, at The Plain Dealer; published 9 February 2010; retrieved 27 January 2015
  14. ^ “ATG Interviews Marilyn Johnson” by Dennis Brunning in Against the Grain, Vol.22: Iss. 2, Article 21. published 2010; retrieved 27 January 2015
  15. ^ The HarperCollins's Speakers Bureau website Archived 2015-02-19 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 27 January 2015
  16. ^ Authors for Libraries Retrieved 27 January 2015
  17. ^ “Book Review: 'Lives in Ruins' by Marilyn Johnson” by Nick Romeo, at The Boston Globe; published 20 November 2014; retrieved 27 January 2015
  18. ^ “Books in Brief” Nature Vol. 515, published 6 November 2014; retrieved 27 January 2015
  19. ^ “Graves and Garbage: The Hard Life of an Archeologist” by Jon Michaud, at New Yorker Blog 'Page-Turner,' published 16 December 2014; retrieved 27 January 2015
  20. ^ “Lives in Ruins-Marilyn Johnson’s New Book about Archaeologists” by K. Kris Hirst, at, published 2014, retrieved 27 January 2015
  21. ^
  22. ^ "Purchase College Writers Center past fellow lists". Archived from the original on 2015-02-14. Retrieved 2014-12-06.
  23. ^ Field (magazine)
  24. ^ “Saving History from the Ruins”. Poughkeepsie Journal, published 3 December 2014; retrieved 27 January 2015

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