Nothing to Be Frightened Of

I recently finished Julian Barnes’s book Nothing to Be Frightened Of, and I thought it was great, although I also couldn’t help but wonder what it was about an aging man’s musings about death that interested me so much. It’s not a subject I’m generally drawn to or a subject that particular intrigues me. It’s only very occasionally that I feel a mild dread at the thought of my own death, and I’m certainly not haunted by it. I’m pretty good at avoiding the whole subject, which I imagine is what most people do (or am I wrong about this? Do most people spend a lot of time fearfully contemplating their own death, and I’m the one who is stupidly oblivious?).

Either I’m terrified of death on an unconscious level and it’s my unconscious that led me to this book, or I read it for the reason my consciousness believes, which is that I’ve been fascinated by Barnes for a while and that I love essayistic nonfiction and so it made perfect sense to see what this book was all about. And I can report that it’s a great read, no matter what your feelings on the subject are.

The book rambles here and there and has no discernible organizational structure, but this matches Barnes’s subject and mood. He’s grappling with one of the biggest, scariest, most mysterious experiences any of us can grapple with, so it makes sense to me that he wouldn’t manage to be organized about it. It strikes me as perfectly appropriate to wander from topic to topic and to return again and again to the same pivotal experiences. I don’t want to imply that the book is repetitious; while Barnes circles around to the same topics again and again, each time he discusses them, they feel fresh.

These topics include his family history, his relationship with his brother, his process of learning what it means to die, his conversations with friends on the subject, what his favorite writers have written about death, and what the deaths of these writers were like. He weaves the biographical and autobiographical material together with passages that look at the subject from philosophical, religious, and artistic points of view, and the whole thing is charmingly and fascinatingly readable.

Barnes comes across as someone terrified of death but doing his best to stay calm, and turning to the thing he knows best to help him out: writing. The book itself comes to seem like a way of staving off death, a fact that Barnes himself acknowledges. It’s hard not to believe that as long as he keeps writing, surely he won’t die. And yet Barnes isn’t deluding himself — he’s well aware that he could die while in the middle of writing, which would leave an artefact entirely different from the one he wanted to leave behind. He also knows that being a famous writer will only buy him a little bit of time before he is forgotten entirely and loses even that shred of immortality — fame. He thinks about the person who will inevitably one day exist: his very last reader.  He is at first grateful to this reader for the attention he or she is paying him, but then he gets angry: if this is his last reader, then that person by definition has failed him by neglecting to convince anyone else to pick up one of his books.

Barnes looks around at the various sources of comfort in the face of death, searching for some reason to keep from despairing, and yet they all fail him. He’s agnostic, pretty well convinced that there is no God out there of the traditional sort, and yet not wanting to take the risk of deciding it for sure. But even if God does exist, he decides that wouldn’t be much comfort, and if God doesn’t exist that’s no comfort either, and who’s to say that if there is a God, that God isn’t cruel and doesn’t take pleasure in torturing us all? Philosophy brings no comfort either. His brother is a philosopher, but Barnes finds his way of thinking foreign to his own more artistic and less strictly logical sensibilities.

As I was reading the book I began to wonder if it would make me start fearing death in a way I hadn’t before. Barnes is pretty convincing after all. It hasn’t, though, which is good. I think it has made me more sympathetic to those who aren’t as oblivious as I am and who do fear death. I think fearing death is a perfectly logical and understandable response, and I’m lucky not to have felt the fear much myself, and I’ll probably fear it more as I get older, as most people probably do. But for now, I’ll just admire Barnes for doing his best to face the subject head on and trying make sense of the thing that is probably the hardest thing possible to make sense of.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

14 responses to “Nothing to Be Frightened Of

  1. catharina van der linden

    a beautiful reflection on an intruiging book. Must read it too.


  2. I’ve wanted to read this since I first heard about it. Thank you for the lovely review. I love Barnes’s writing, and I do spend time (not a lot, fortunately) thinking about death, and fearing it–so this one’s perfect for me!

    I think you’re lucky if you don’t waste time on fearing death, by the way. I don’t have a belief system that is in any way comforting about death, and the idea of not existing any more is just plain scary. I’m just so attached to consciousness!


  3. This sounds like such an interesting book. I’m not sure I could read it right now. Like you I never really gave death much thought, but it is something that crosses my mind more than I care to admit as I get a little bit older–not necessarily my own (though that too) but deaths of family members–as my parents are getting up there. And like Gentle Reader the idea of just not existing is very scary and one I can identify with.


  4. Thank you Catharina.

    Gentle Reader — I hope you like the book! Now that I think about it, I find the thought of an afterlife scarier than no afterlife at all. I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family and so thought about heaven and hell and end times a lot, and those used to terrify me (heaven didn’t terrify me, but a lot of other things in the book of Revelations did). So heading into nothingness after death now seems positively peaceful.

    Danielle — it’s interesting (and natural) the way our thoughts about death change over time. The thing that bothers me most when I think about not existing anymore is the thought that I won’t know how things “turn out.” I want some way of knowing what happens to this world, and it seems wrong that we have absolutely no way of knowing what things will be like even 100 years from now.


  5. While I do have faith that there is heaven, it would be dishonest to say I don’t fear death. Anything unknown to us is scary. I do believe we will know how things turn out here, but it might be hard if we are not allowed to “participate” and can only observe.

    C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce gives one picture — albeit a strange one — of what heaven might be like. It left me with more questions than answers, but it was a start. It made heaven more curious to me than fearful.


  6. I have a pretty firm belief in reincarnation, which sometimes scares me more than if I just believed that the soul ended when the body dies–what if I get born in a bad family in a bad place, etc.? But then I also believe in karma, and try even harder to be generous, kind, and loving…all that said, my husband’s parents both died within the past three years, and my parents are in their late 80’s, so death has been on my mind a fair amount of late.

    I tend to like to deal with issues by reading about them, and this book sounds like just the ticket for me. I’ve thought about reading “On Death and Dying,” which I think is the classic in this sub-genre–which Woody Allen movie was it in which he was reading this repeatedly, Annie Hall?

    Anyway, I liked your review–thanks.


  7. I spend a great deal of time fearing death in a vague, uneasy way.

    Actually, my fear of death is not quite as omnipresent as my fear of Republicans and Christian fundamentalists (and clowns–I hate clowns). They’re everywhere!

    I’m thinkin’ I should read this…


  8. Debby — thank you for your thoughts on the subject. You know, I read The Great Divorce a while back (probably 15 years ago now), but don’t remember a thing about it. I’m kind of curious what Lewis’s picture of heaven is like!

    JaneGS — if you do read this, I hope you enjoy it. It is exactly the kind of book you will like, given that you like to deal with a subject by reading about it! I agree with you that the thought of an afterlife can be scarier than no afterlife at all, but definitely not everyone feels that way. Maybe we’re even in the minority? I’m not sure.

    Chartroose — it’s easier, in a way, to fear things we can actually see, like religious fundamentalists! Unless you’re in the presence of the dead or dying, death can be abstract and seem unreal. At least that’s the case with me.


  9. Wonderful review, Dorothy. I loved this, and it’s Barnes trademark wit and intelligence that just shines through any and every topic, making it vital and fresh, that attracts me so much to his work. I’m not sure I’m afraid of death, but I’m very afraid of the suffering that precedes it. It’s the thought of facing the fact of dying that does freak me at 3 in the morning.


  10. Great review. I’m looking forward to reading this too (have ordered it). Some days I do have a nagging fear of death and I interpret little things (tiredness, pain) in a catastrophising way. But I also know (thanks to Yalom) that a fear of death is also a fear of not living a full life. I don’t mind dying if I know I’ve really tried to do the things that I really want to do. As for the afterlife, I remember when I was six years old we all had to write down what we wanted most in the world. I wanted to go to Heaven. (Now I think it’s probably a social construct).


  11. I am so glad you enjoyed this book because I just got an email from my library saying it was waiting for me to pick it up. I’ve been in the hold line since the fall. I was looking forward to it before but now I am really glad it is finally my turn!

    Oh, and I am pretty oblivious too most of the time. Now and then I get a twinge and a fleeting moment of sadness that one day I will die. But then I get distracted by living.


  12. First, he surely can’t be angry with you, for you have done your part to ensure you aren’t his last reader.

    Having faced death several times, and having come to the conclusion that it was purely by the grace of God that I survived those incidents, gives me a certain measure of peace when considering my mortality. Back then, I think I had studied enough to understand that God existed, but had taken no action to rectify myself to Him; hence, I believe in amazing grace. By every right I should be dead and vanquished to Hell, so every day of life I have left is like a gift, and every day after I pass on is surely a gift.

    Your thoughts on how people consider death are interesting. I would agree that most people seem to try not to think about it. For some people it may be uncertainty. For some, I think it’s guilt. Thanks again.


  13. Litlove — I agree with you about fearing dying more than death. Death seems peaceful to me, but dying? Horrible. I really appreciated your review of Barnes’s book — thanks for writing so well about it I was inspired to read it myself!

    Couchtrip — I hope you enjoy the book, and I’m definitely looking forward to any post you might write on it! I think you’re right that living a full life is a good way of dealing with the prospect of death. I suspect Barnes might say that living a full life would make him want to keep on living a full life and would make it harder to give up on living. But I can see how it might provide some comfort. Barnes also talks about how awful regret is, and living fully might help keep regrets at bay.

    Stefanie — I’m so glad you will be reading this book! And I’m curious to hear what you think, particularly as another non-death-fearing person. Even though I haven’t experienced the fear he describes, I found the book very moving, and I’m curious if you will too.

    Bikkuri — I’m certainly doing my best to increase Barnes’s readership! I can definitely see that having faced death would change your perspective entirely — it’s no longer an abstract concept but is something very real. How wonderful to see every day of life as a gift — I’m sure that would lead to a well-lived life!


  14. Pingback: Nothing to Be Frightened Of « So Many Books

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