My Year Off: Recovering Life After a Stroke


On the morning of July 29, 1995. Robert McCrum -- forty-two-years old, newly married, at the top of his profession as one of British publishing's most admired editors, and in what he thought was the full bloom of health -- awoke to find himself totally paralyzed on the left side, the victim of a stroke brought on by a massive cerebral hemorrhage. In My Year Off, McCrum takes readers through his own education about strokes and the frustrating reality that medical science can neither pinpoint the cause of his ...
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On the morning of July 29, 1995. Robert McCrum -- forty-two-years old, newly married, at the top of his profession as one of British publishing's most admired editors, and in what he thought was the full bloom of health -- awoke to find himself totally paralyzed on the left side, the victim of a stroke brought on by a massive cerebral hemorrhage. In My Year Off, McCrum takes readers through his own education about strokes and the frustrating reality that medical science can neither pinpoint the cause of his stroke nor offer any guarantee of recovery. He poignantly writes about his life being irrevocably changed, and, in a new afterword, how his book has touched others. McCrum's recovery is beset by anger and depression, but also marked by the love of his wife, Sarah Lyall, a love that proves equal to their dismaying circumstances. With excerpts from both their journals sprinkled throughout, My Year Off is much more than a story of recovery: It is a love story of the most realistic -- and hence, inspiring -- kind.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A meticulous and highly literate account, written by a good storyteller--.A book difficult to lay aside until its final sentence has been reached."
--Sherwin B. Nuland (author of How We Die), The New York Times

"Elevating the health-book genre to art is My Year Off. Here's proof a book can delight as it heals"
--The Wall Street Journal

"Lucid, heartfelt . . . a testament to the parallel trials and the courage of the family members of stroke victims."
--Abraham Verghese, The New York Times Book Review

"Good reading for anyone who thinks about or has an illness . . . or who ponders change and the meaning of a meaningful life."
--USA Today

"McCrum eloquently recounts the year of rage, depression, and small victories that has finally left him facing the future with determination and grace."
--Seattle Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393350050
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/17/1998
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.55 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert McCrum
Robert McCrum, now literary editor of London's Observer, was the editor-in-chief of the publishing firm Faber & Faber in London for nearly twenty years. He has authored six highly acclaimed novels and is the coauthor of the bestselling The Story of English. McCrum lives in London with his wife, Sarah Lyall, and their daughter.


Although not a household name in America, editor and writer Robert McCrum has had an enormous impact on the current state of literature. In his 20 years as Editor-in-Chief at famed British publishing house Faber & Faber, McCrum transformed a largely mediocre fiction list into a roster that included such successful and influential novelists as Peter Carey, Paul Auster, and Vikram Seth. In 1996, McCrum turned a semi-regular stint writing for the British newspaper The Observer into a fulltime position as literary editor, where he remains today. Somewhere along the line, he found the time to publish six of his own novels, co-author a best-selling history of the English language, and research and write a critically lauded biography of English humorist P.G. Wodehouse.

After graduating from Cambridge's Corpus Christi College on a history scholarship, McCrum set off across the pond with a post-graduate scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. He earned his MA, and then left the world of academia forever, opting instead to take a one-year extended tour of America in his Buick Skylark.

Back in England, McCrum took a job as a publicity assistant at Chatto & Windus. McCrum's intelligence, charm, and competitive streak quickly put him on the map as a rising star in British publishing. In 1979, a mere two years after starting at Chatto & Windus, McCrum began his successful run at Faber and Faber.

Never one to settle for complacency, McCrum published his first novel the following year, a thriller about the inner workings of British national intelligence called In the Secret State. His second novel, A Loss of Heart, was released in 1982. Two years after that, yet another novel, The Fabulous Englishman, was released to solid reviews and sales.

McCrum's biggest success came as co-author 1986 publication of The Story of English, which was released in tandem with a 10-part PBS documentary of the same name. McCrum's work on the series earned him an Emmy and a Peabody award, and the book became an international bestseller that still sells briskly in its 3rd revised edition.

And so McCrum's seemingly charmed life continued into the 90s. A fourth novel, Mainland, came out in 1992, and McCrum was putting the finishing touches on his next novel, Suspicion, when tragedy struck. In the summer of 1995, he awoke to find his entire left side paralyzed by a devastating stroke. Only 42 years old, McCrum's world shifted overnight. The writer's natural curiosity and need to communicate persevered, however, and in 1998 he released a critically-acclaimed memoir of his year spent in recovery entitled My Year Off.

Shortly after the publication of My Year Off, McCrum launched full-force into work on Wodehouse: A Life. Research for the biography of the famed English humorist would take him all over the world, from Wodehouse's homes in California to the German camp where he was interned during World War II to New York City. "It seems to me that you can't begin to understand someone until you see where they lived, what they saw out of the window when they woke up, and the kind of people they were living near," McCrum has said.

Four years spent traveling and reading Wodehouse's vast amounts of published and unpublished works paid off with a biography that critics have hailed as the definitive chronicle of the life of P.G. Wodehouse.

Good To Know

Some outtakes from our interview with McCrum:

"I'm a) tall b) speak English c) like a drink."

"My first job was looking after a parrot in a zoo."

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    1. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 7, 1953
    2. Place of Birth:
      Cambridge, England
    1. Education:
      Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, England, 1972-75; University of Pennsylvania, 1975-76

Read an Excerpt

Wo aber Gefahr, wacht das Rettende auch.
(Where danger waits, salvation also lies.)
--Friedrich Hölderlin

When I was just forty-two I suffered a severe stroke. Paralysed on my left side and unable to walk, I was confined to a hospital for three months, then spent about a year recovering, slowly getting myself back into the world.

When I was seriously ill in hospital, I longed to read a book that would tell me what I might expect in convalescence and also give me something to think about. There are many books about strokes in old age, but I was young and had been vigorous and there was nothing that spoke to me in my distress.

I have written this book ot help those who have suffered as I did, and indeed for anyone recovering from what doctors call "an insult to the brain". I've also written it for families and loved ones who, sucked into the vortex of catastrophic illnes, find themselves searching for words of encouragement and explanation. People express every kind of sympathy for stroke-sufferers, but the carers are often the forgotten ones. To all concerned, this book is meant to send a ghostly signal across the dark universe of ill-health that says, "You are not alone." It's also intended to show those of us who are well what it can be like when our bodies shut down in the midst of the lives we take for granted. Some will say that it's a memento mori, and that's undeniable, but I hope that it will also be heartening, especially to those who have given up all hope of recovery. I don't mean to offer false or cheap optimism, but I am saying that, if my example is to be trusted, the brain seems to be anastonishingly resilient organ, and one capable, in certain circumstances, of remarkable recovery.

The other audience for this book is, of course, myself. The consequences of my stroke were simply too colossal to be ignored or shut away in some mental pigeon-hole. Writing the book has been a way to make sense of an extraordinary personal upheaval, whose consequences will be with me until I die. Besides, I am a writer. Communicating experience is what I do, and quite soon after I realized that I was going to survive the initial crisis I also relaized that I had been given a story that made most of what I'd written previously pale and uninteresting by comparison.

Whatever you, the reader, take away from it, there's no escaping that it is a personal book, my version of an event that changed my life. The philosopher Wittgenstein writes, "How small a thought it takes to make a life." Throughout my period of recovery I was often alone with my thoughts. When, finally, I came to record these, this book became the mirror of an enforced season of solitude in the midst of a crowded life. I've called it My Year Off because, despite the overall grimness of the experience, there were, at every stage, moments of acute irony and, even, of the purest comedy to brighten the prevailing gloom and chase away the clouds of melancholy. P.G. Wodehouse, one of my favourite writers, once said that "There are two ways of writing ... [One is ....] a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn." There is, I'm afraid, not much musical comedy about having a stroke.

At times, my year off was one of all-pervading slowness, of weeks lived one day, even one hour, at a time, and of life circumscribed by exasperating new restrictions and limitations. The poet Coleridge observed that it is the convalescent who sees the world in its true colours, and, as a convalescent, I have been forced into a renewed acquaintanceship with my body and into the painful realization that I am, like it or not, imprisoned in it. I have learned, in short, that I am not immortal (the fantasy of youth) and yet, strangely, in the process I have been renewed in my understanding of family and, finally, of the one thing that really matters: love.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: A Severe Insult to the Brain 1
1 One Fine Day 4
2 An Awfully Big Adventure 17
3 In the Blood 24
4 Brain Attack 32
5 My New Life 46
6 Sarah 60
7 'Robert McCrum Is Dead' 70
8 'Not a Drooling Vegetable' 88
9 Death and Dying 115
10 Better Dead 129
11 Deficits 140
12 Slowness 166
13 The Rapids 176
14 Seizing the Carp 191
15 An Aspirin and a Glass of Wine 211
16 Candlemas 225
Afterword 227
Further Reading, Some Useful Addresses and Acknowledgements 235
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