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On Sale: September 02, 2008
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A memoir on mortality as only Julian Barnes can write it, one that touches on faith and science and family as well as a rich array of exemplary figures who over the centuries have confronted the same questions he now poses about the most basic fact of life: its inevitable extinction. If the fear of death is “the most rational thing in the world,” how does one contend with it? An atheist at twenty and an agnostic at sixty, Barnes looks into the various arguments for, against, and with God, and at his own bloodline, which has become, following his parents’ death, another realm of mystery.

Deadly serious, masterfully playful, and surprisingly hilarious, Nothing to Be Frightened Of is a riveting display of how this supremely gifted writer goes about his business and a highly personal tour of the human condition and what might follow the final diagnosis.


I don't believe in God, but I miss Him. That’s what I say when the question is put. I asked my brother, who has taught philosophy at Oxford, Geneva, and the Sorbonne, what he thought of such a statement, without revealing that it was my own. He replied with a single word: "Soppy."

The person to begin with is my maternal grandmother, Nellie Louisa Scoltock, nee Machin. She was a teacher in Shropshire until she married my grandfather, Bert Scoltock. Not Bertram, not Albert, just Bert: so christened, so called, so cremated. He was a headmaster with a certain mechanical dash to him: a motorcycle-and-sidecar man, then owner of a Lanchester, then, in retirement, driver of a rather pompously sporty Triumph Roadster, with a three-person bench seat in front, and two bucket seats when the top was down. By the time I knew them, my grandparents had come south to be near their only child. Grandma went to the Women's Institute; she pickled and bottled; she plucked and roasted the chickens and geese that Grandpa raised. She was petite, outwardly unopinionated, and had the thickened knuckles of old age; she needed soap to get her wedding ring off. Their wardrobe was full of home-knitted cardigans, Grandpa's tending to feature more masculine cable stitch. They had regular appointments with the chiropodist, and were of that generation advised by dentists to have all their teeth out in one go. This was a normal rite of passage then: from being rickety-gnashered to fully porcelained in one leap, to all that buccal sliding and clacking, to social embarrassment and the foaming glass on the bedside table.

The change from teeth to dentures struck my brother and me as both grave and ribald. But my grandmother's life had contained another enormous change, never alluded to in her presence. Nellie Louisa Machin, daughter of a labourer in a chemical works, had been brought up a Methodist; while the Scoltocks were Church of England. At some point in her young adulthood, my grandmother had suddenly lost her faith and, in the smooth narration of family lore, found a replacement: socialism. I have no idea how strong her religious faith had been, or what her family's politics were; all I know is that she once stood for the local council as a socialist and was defeated. By the time I knew her, in the 1950s, she had progressed to being a communist. She must have been one of the few old-age pensioners in suburban Buckinghamshire who took the Daily Worker and—so my brother and I insisted to one another—fiddled the housekeeping to send donations to the newspaper's Fighting Fund.

In the late 1950s, the Sino-Soviet Schism took place, and com-munists worldwide were obliged to choose between Moscow and Peking. For most of the European faithful, this was not a difficult decision; nor was it for the Daily Worker, which received funding as well as directives from Moscow. My grandmother, who had never been abroad in her life, who lived in genteel bungalowdom, decided for undisclosed reasons to throw in her lot with the Chinese. I welcomed this mysterious decision with blunt selfinterest, since her Worker was now supplemented by China Reconstructs, a heretical magazine posted direct from the distant continent. Grandma would save me the stamps from the biscuity envelopes. These tended to celebrate industrial achievement—bridges, hydroelectric dams, lorries rolling off production lines—or else show various breeds of dove in peaceful flight.

My brother did not compete for such offerings, because some years previously there had been a Stamp-Collecting Schism in our home. He had decided to specialize in the British Empire. I, to assert my difference, announced that I would therefore specialize in a category which I named, with what seemed like logic to me, Rest of the World. It was defined solely in terms of what my brother didn't collect. I can no longer remember if this move was aggressive, defensive, or merely pragmatic. All I know is that it led to some occasionally baffling exchanges in the school stamp club among philatelists only recently out of short trousers. "So, Barnesy, what do you collect?" "Rest of the World."

My grandfather was a Brylcreem man, and the antimacassar on his Parker Knoll armchair—a high-backed number with wings for him to snooze against—was not merely decorative. His hair had whitened sooner than Grandma's; he had a clipped, military moustache, a metal-stemmed pipe, and a tobacco pouch which distended his cardigan pocket. He also wore a chunky hearing aid, another aspect of the adult world—or rather, the world on the farther side of adulthood—which my brother and I liked to mock. "Beg pardon?" we would shout satirically at one another, cupping hands to ears. Both of us used to look forward to the prized moment when our grandmother's stomach would rumble loudly enough for Grandpa to be roused from his deafness into the enquiry, "Telephone, Ma?" An embarrassed grunt later, they would go back to their newspapers. Grandpa, in his male armchair, deaf aid occasionally whistling and pipe making a hubble-bubble noise as he sucked on it, would shake his head over the Daily Express, which described to him a world where truth and justice were constantly imperilled by the Communist Threat. In her softer, female armchair—in the red corner—Grandma would tut-tut away over the Daily Worker, which described to her a world where truth and justice, in their updated versions, were constantly imperilled by Capitalism and Imperialism.

Grandpa, by this time, had reduced his religious observance to watching Songs of Praise on television. He did woodwork and gardened; he grew his own tobacco and dried it in the garage loft, where he also stored dahlia tubers and old copies of the Daily Express bound with hairy string. He favoured my brother, taught him how to sharpen a chisel, and left him his chest of carpentry tools. I can't remember him teaching (or leaving) me anything, though I was once allowed to watch while he killed a chicken in his garden shed. He took the bird under his arm, stroked it into calmness, then laid its neck on a green metal wringing machine screwed to the doorjamb. As he brought the handle down, he gripped the bird's body ever more tightly against its final convulsions.

My brother was allowed not just to watch, but also to participate. Several times he got to pull the lever while Grandpa held the bird. But our memories of the slaughter in the shed diverge into incompatibility. For me, the machine merely wrung the chicken's neck; for him, it was a junior guillotine. "I have a clear picture of a small basket underneath the blade. I have a (less clear) picture of the head dropping, some (not much) blood, Grandpa putting the headless bird on the ground, its running around for a few moments . . ." Is my memory sanitized, or his infected by films about the French Revolution? In either case, Grandpa introduced my brother to death—and its messiness—better than he did me. "Do you remember how Grandpa killed the geese before Christmas?" (I do not.) "He used to chase the destined goose round its pen, flailing at it with a crowbar. When he finally got it, he would, for good measure, lay it on the ground, put the crowbar across its neck, and tug on its head."

My brother remembers a ritual—never witnessed by me—which he called the Reading of the Diaries. Grandma and Grandpa each kept separate diaries, and of an evening would sometimes entertain themselves by reading out loud to one another what they had recorded on that very week several years previously. The entries were apparently of considerable banality but frequent disagreement. Grandpa: "Friday. Worked in garden. Planted potatoes." Grandma: "Nonsense. 'Rained all day. Too wet to work in garden.'"

My brother also remembers that once, when he was very small, he went into Grandpa's garden and pulled up all the onions. Grandpa beat him until he howled, then turned uncharacteristically white, confessed everything to our mother, and swore he would never again raise his hand to a child. Actually, my brother doesn't remember any of this—neither the onions, nor the beating. He was just told the story repeatedly by our mother. And indeed, were he to remember it, he might well be wary. As a philosopher, he believes that memories are often false, "so much so that, on the Cartesian principle of the rotten apple, none is to be trusted unless it has some external support." I am more trusting, or self-deluding, so shall continue as if all my memories are true.

Our mother was christened Kathleen Mabel. She hated the Mabel, and complained about it to Grandpa, whose explanation was that he "had once known a very nice girl called Mabel." I have no idea about the progress or regress of her religious beliefs, though I own her prayer book, bound together with Hymns Ancient and Modern in soft brown suede, each volume signed in surprising green ink with her name and the date: "Dec: 25th. 1932." I admire her punctuation: two full stops and a colon, with the stop beneath the "th" placed exactly between the two letters. You don't get punctuation like that nowadays.

In my childhood, the three unmentionable subjects were the traditional ones: religion, politics, and sex. By the time my mother and I came to discuss these matters—the first two, that is, the third being permanently off the agenda—she was "true blue" in politics, as I would guess she always had been. As for religion, she told me firmly that she didn't want "any of that mumbo-jumbo" at her funeral. So when the undertaker asked if I wanted the "religious symbols" removed from the crematorium wall, I told him I thought that this is what she would have wanted.

The past conditional, by the way, is a tense of which my brother is highly suspicious. Waiting for the funeral to start, we had, not an argument—this would have been against all family tradition—but an exchange which demonstrated that if I am a rationalist by my own standards, I am a fairly feeble one by his. When our mother was first incapacitated by a stroke, she happily agreed that her granddaughter C. should have the use of her car: the last of a long sequence of Renaults, the marque to which she had maintained a francophiliac loyalty over four decades. Standing with my brother in the crematorium car park, I was looking out for the familiar French silhouette when my niece arrived at the wheel of her boyfriend R.'s car. I observed—mildly, I am sure—"I think Ma would have wanted C. to come in her car." My brother, just as mildly, took logical exception to this. He pointed out that there are the wants of the dead, i.e. things which people now dead once wanted; and there are hypothetical wants, i.e. things which people would or might have wanted. "What Mother would have wanted" was a combination of the two: a hypothetical want of the dead, and therefore doubly questionable. "We can only do what we want," he explained; to indulge the maternal hypothetical was as irrational as if he were now to pay attention to his own past desires. I proposed in reply that we should try to do what she would have wanted, a) because we have to do something, and that something (unless we simply left her body to rot in the back garden) involves choices; and b) because we hope that when we die, others will do what we in our turn would have wanted.

I see my brother infrequently, and so am often startled by the way in which his mind works; but he is quite genuine in what he says. As I drove him back to London after the funeral, we had a—to me—even more peculiar exchange about my niece and her boyfriend. They had been together a long time, though during a period of estrangement C. had taken up with another man. My brother and his wife had instantly disliked this interloper, and my sister-in-law had apparently taken a mere ten minutes to "sort him out." I didn't ask the manner of the sorting out. Instead, I asked, "But you approve of R.?"

"It's irrelevant," my brother replied, "whether or not I approve of R."

"No, it's not. C. might want you to approve of him."

"On the contrary, she might want me not to approve of him."

"But either way, it's not irrelevant to her whether or not you approve or disapprove."

He thought this over for a moment. "You're right," he said.

You can perhaps tell from these exchanges that he is the elder brother.

My mother had expressed no views about the music she wanted at her funeral. I chose the first movement of Mozart's piano sonata in E flat major K282—one of those long, stately unwindings and rewindings, grave even when turning sprightly. It seemed to last about fifteen minutes instead of the sleeve-noted seven, and I found myself wondering at times if this was another Mozartian repeat or the crematorium's CD player skipping backwards. The previous year I had appeared on Desert Island Discs, where the Mozart I had chosen was the Requiem. Afterwards, my mother telephoned and picked up on the fact that I had described myself as an agnostic. She told me that this was how Dad used to describe himself—whereas she was an atheist. She made it sound as if being an agnostic was a wishy-washy liberal position, as opposed to the truth-and-market-forces reality of atheism. "What's all this about death, by the way?" she continued. I explained that I didn't like the idea of it. "You're just like your father," she replied. "Maybe it's your age. When you get to my age you won't mind so much. I've seen the best of life anyway. And think about the Middle Ages—then their life expectancy was really short. Nowadays we live seventy, eighty, ninety years . . . People only believe in religion because they're afraid of death." This was a typical statement from my mother: lucid, opinionated, explicitly impatient of opposing views. Her dominance of the family, and her certainties about the world, made things usefully clear in childhood, restrictive in adolescence, and grindingly repetitive in adulthood.

After her cremation, I retrieved my Mozart CD from the "organist" who, I found myself reflecting, must nowadays get his full fee for putting on and taking off a single CD track. My father had been despatched, five years earlier, at a different crematorium, by a working organist earning his money honestly from Bach. Was this "what he would have wanted"? I don't think he would have objected; he was a gentle, liberal-minded man who wasn't much interested in music. In this, as in most things, he deferred—though not without many a quietly ironical aside—to his wife. His clothes, the house they lived in, the car they drove: such decisions were hers.
Julian Barnes

About Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes - Nothing to Be Frightened Of

Photo © Jillian Edelstein

Julian Barnes was born in Leicester and moved to London in 1946. He is the author of twenty books, and in 2011 won the Man Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending. He met Pat Kavanagh in 1978.
Pat Kavanagh was born in South Africa and moved to London in 1964. She worked in advertising and then, for forty years, as a literary agent. She married Julian Barnes in 1979, and died in 2008.


“Beautiful and funny. . . . An elegant memoir and meditation, a deep seismic tremor of a book that keeps rumbling and grumbling in the mind for weeks thereafter.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Brilliantly written and also funny . . . cunningly composed . . . held together in a rather Proustian fashion . . . Barnes has an extremely lively mind, and a distinctive voice, which gives a certain welcome jauntiness or gaiety to his darker musings.” –Frank Kermode, The New York Review of Books

“A delicious mix of personal reminiscence, family history, literary criticism, and philosophical speculation.” The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Barbarously intelligent [and] a rare thing in literature . . . marvelously engaging, even uplifting . . . Briskly, rigorously, this unusual book gives us something to think about until that nothingness comes knocking." –NPR

“Beautifully done . . . an extended meditation on human mortality, but one that is neither clinical nor falsely consoling. Instead, the witty and melancholic author simply converses with us about our most universal fear.” –The Washington Post

“Surprisingly jocular–although also dead earnest . . . highly literary, thoughtful but playful.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“Very entertaining and, best of all, wholesomely provocative.” –O, The Oprah Magazine

“Barnes is a writer of impulsive insights, many of them remarkable . . . of humane irony, antic imagination, and unsettling perceptiveness. He constructs a many-leveled scaffolding of argument, memoir, literary reference, and musings all around the dark pit.” –The Boston Globe

“For those who think that facing death is life's most pressing test, Barnes is an amiable and articulate companion [who] sees humor in the impossibility of finding lasting comfort . . . His contemplation of death invariably becomes a treatise on living.” –The Tennessean

“[Nothing to Be Frightened Of] call[s] to mind Woody Allen . . . Touching–and very funny.” –Providence Phoenix

“Just try to put this memoir down . . . A dazzling blend of wry humor, keen philosophy and perceptive observations as Barnes ruminates about the inevitability of death and what it all means.” –Rocky Mountain News

“Strange and marvelous . . . Despite [its] mordant wit, erudition, and typically British understatement, the fear and trembling at its heart are always palpable . . . It is so good–an item of high literary quality and, paradoxically, great good humor.” –Barnes & Noble Review

“Barnes is a great conversationalist, and this is a humorous book in spite of its serious subject.” –St. Petersburg Times

“Erudite and entertaining.” –Playboy

“A brilliant bible of elegant despair . . . that most urgent kind of self-help manual: the one you must read before you die.” –Men's Vogue

“Unexpectedly jaunty . . . On virtually every page there is a good joke, even when–or perhaps especially when–Barnes is writing about the grimmest events. Julian Barnes is wonderful at keeping awe and flippancy in perfect balance . . . One of the joys of this book is that it contains so many playful asides, so many exhilaration diversions from its gloomy central theme.’ –Mail on Sunday (London)
“Speculative and precise, intimate and metaphysical, capacious and democratic in the variety of voices, alive and dead, that are invited to counsel the author as he edges his way towards the void.” –Times Literary Supplement (London)
“Julian Barnes is a delightful companion and much of the book (its informal tone included) is like an extended and very interesting conversation.” –Literary Review(London)

“Compelling . . . witty and erudite . . . consistently interesting and entertaining.” –Val Hennessy, Daily Mail (London)

“Both fun and funny. It is sharp, too, in the sense of painful as well as witty . . . You are in the presence of a nimble mind in complete mastery of, and engagement with, his chosen subject.” –New Statesman (London)

“Intensely fascinating.” –The Times (London)

“Entertaining, intriguing, absorbing and so expansive that I was startled, on finishing, to note its brevity . . . Irresistible reading.” –Financial Times (London)

“Superb . . . [Barnes’s] funniest and frankest work yet.” –Daily Telegraph (London)
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

"Beautiful and funny. . . . An elegant memoir and meditation, a deep seismic tremor of a book that keeps rumbling and grumbling in the mind for weeks thereafter."
—Garrison Keillor, The New York Times Book Review

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group's discussion of Julian Barnes's extraordinary memoir Nothing to Be Frightened Of.

About the Guide

Montaigne suggested that we keep the thought of death always before us. And Julian Barnes, in this elegant, probing, unflinchingly honest meditation on death and the fear of death, seems to have followed Montaigne's advice, albeit involuntarily. Barnes's fear of death is extreme and unrelenting. He speaks of suddenly waking in the middle of the night screaming, "Oh, no!" Nor are his fears amenable to the comforting vision of the afterlife proffered by Christianity or to the various consolations scientists, thanatologists, and self-help gurus have devised to fill the void.

Instead, Barnes turns to the novelists, poets, composers, and philosophers he most admires, from Montaigne and Jules Renard to Stendhal, Flaubert, Shostakovich, Zbigniew Herbert, Somerset Maugham, Philip Larkin, his brother (the philosopher Jonathan Barnes), and many others. Like Flaubert, who "never lost the realist's need, and demand, to look where others averted their gaze," Barnes feels it a human and writerly duty to investigate our mortal limit [p. 95]. He looks long and hard at death, considering it from all angles, asking whether it would be better to know the time and manner of one's death or to be surprised; if a sudden or protracted death is preferable; if it is better to live in a continual awareness of death or as if one would live forever; and most importantly, what it might mean be to have a "good death"—to die honorably, to die "in character."

What makes Nothing to Be Frightened Of such a formidable and surprisingly enjoyable work is Barnes's refusal to be easily or falsely consoled and his willingness to see the humor, dark as it is, in the human predicament. He lays out with great care what seem like helpful strategies for dealing with the fear of death, and then just as carefully shows why they don't really work—in his case, and perhaps in ours as well. Barnes is not so eager to allay his fears that he will violate his intellectual integrity. Indeed, it is rare to see a writer of such stature write about fears he finds absolutely harrowing with such intrepid honesty and clarity. And by placing his own fears in the context of some of the most engaging thinkers that have turned their attention to death, Barnes lifts his meditation beyond the merely personal—his subject is, after all, one that everyone must face.

It is hard to say whether or not, after 244 pages of clear-eyed self-examination and lucid, nimble prose; Barnes has eased his own fears. But he has certainly named them, held them up to the light of reason, and invited his readers, at least those who possess the necessary courage, to do the same.

About the Author

Julian Barnes is the author of ten novels, two books of stories, two collections of essays, and a translation of Alphonse Daudet's In the Land of Pain. His honors include the Somerset Maugham Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2004 he was named Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. He lives in London.

Discussion Guides

1. Nothing to Be Frightened Of opens with an arresting sentence: "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him" [p. 3]. How is it possible to both miss God and not believe in him? Is Julian Barnes's brother, Jonathan, right in regarding such a sentiment as "soppy"?

2. How does Barnes manage to make a 244-page book about death and the fear of death such an enjoyable read? What is appealing about his voice throughout the book? What are some of the more humorous moments in Nothing to Be Frightened Of?

3. Barnes writes that: "For me, death is the one appalling fact which defines life" [p. 124]. Why does he feel this way? In what ways does death "define life"? Why would life become intolerable without the prospect of death?

4. In what ways are Barnes's fears of death representative of those who have lost faith, or who have never had faith, in the various versions of the afterlife that the major religions have proposed? In what ways are Barnes's fears unique to him?

5. "We encourage one another," Barnes writes, "towards the secular modern heaven of self-fulfillment: the development of the personality, the relationships which help define us, the status-giving job, the material goods, the ownership of property, the foreign holidays, the acquisition of savings, the accumulation of sexual exploits, the visits to the gym, the consumption of culture. It all adds up to happiness, doesn't it—doesn't it? This is our chosen myth" [p. 59]. Why does the secular myth of self-fulfillment fail to ease the fear of death?

6. What examples does Barnes give of people who have died "in character"? Why does he admire this ability to stay true to one's nature in the face of death?

7. Barnes examines what such writers and composers as Jules Renard, Alphonse Daudet, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Somerset Maugham, Stendhal, A. J. Ayer, Montaigne, Sherwin Nuland, Philip Larkin, and others have written about death. Is he able to draw any comfort from their words?  On what grounds does he reject most of these arguments? Which of their arguments about how to best approach death does he find most helpful?

8. Barnes observes that when writers "venture out into the world, they regularly behave as if they have left all their comprehension of human behaviour stuck in their typescripts" [p. 126]. Why is it that writers demonstrate so much understanding of human behavior in their writing and so little in their lives?

9. In what ways is Nothing to Be Frightened Of a book about the art of fiction as well as a book about death? What connections does Barnes make between narrative art and death? Between novelists and religions?

10. Throughout the book, Barnes poses a series of either/or questions to the reader:  Would you rather die suddenly, without warning, or slowly, so that you could tie up loose ends, say farewell, etc.? Would you rather choose the moment of your dying, or leave it to fate? Would you rather live with the knowledge of death always before you, as Montaigne suggests, or live as if you were immortal? Discuss these questions with your group. What other either/or questions might one pose about death and dying?

11. After considering Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle, Barnes writes, "The artist is saying: display and bravura are tricks for the young, and yes, showing off is part of ambition; but now that we are old, let us have the confidence to speak simply. . . .  This is not just humility in the face of eternity; it is also that it takes a lifetime to see, and say, simple things" [p. 194]. Why would it take a lifetime to learn to see and say simple things? In what ways has Barnes himself, despite his obvious erudition, mastered the art of speaking simply? What are some of the pleasures of Barnes's prose style?

12. Barnes quotes Shostakovich who said that the fear of death is probably the deepest feeling we have and that "the irony lies in the fact that under the influence of that fear people create poetry, prose and music; that is, they try to strengthen their ties with the living and increase their influence on them" [p. 200]. Why would the fear of death inspire people to create works of art? How does Barnes respond to Shostakovich's remark? 

13. How does Barnes regard his parents' deaths? What effect do they have on his own fear of death?

14. Barnes asserts that "the ingenious human animal is well capable of constructing civilizations where religion coexists with frenetic materialism (where the former might even be an emetic consequence of the latter): witness America" [p. 60]. Is Barnes right in suggesting that religion in America is a nauseating consequence of our insatiable materialism? What evidence can be found to support such a view?

15. What does the inclusion of the views of Barnes's philosopher brother add to the texture of the book? How does Jonathan Barnes's sensibility differ from Julian's?

16. After 244 pages of musing on death does Barnes seems any less anxious about it? Has his thinking about or fear of death changed over the course of the book?

Suggested Readings

Diana Athill, Somewhere Towards the End; Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death; Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking; William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying; Sherwin B. Nuland, How We Die; Philip Roth, Everyman; Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych; Jules Renard, The Journal of Jules Renard

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