Nothing to Be Frightened Of

( 13 )


Julian Barnes' new book is, among many things, a family memoir, an exchange with his brother (a philosopher), a meditation on morality and the fear of death, a celebration of art, an argument with and about God, and a homage to the French writer Jules Renard. Though he warns us that 'this is not my autobiography', the result is like a tour of the mind of one of our most brilliant writers.
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Julian Barnes' new book is, among many things, a family memoir, an exchange with his brother (a philosopher), a meditation on morality and the fear of death, a celebration of art, an argument with and about God, and a homage to the French writer Jules Renard. Though he warns us that 'this is not my autobiography', the result is like a tour of the mind of one of our most brilliant writers.
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Editorial Reviews

Michael Dirda
Now in his early 60s, the novelist Julian Barnes tells us that he thinks about death every day, and periodically finds himself bolting upright from sleep screaming, "No, no, no." (Ah, yes: Been there, done that.) As its brilliant title punningly hints, Nothing to Be Frightened Of offers an extended meditation on human mortality, but one that is neither clinical nor falsely consoling. Instead, the witty and melancholy author of Flaubert's Parrot and Arthur & George simply converses with us about our most universal fear
—The Washington Post
Garrison Keillor
"I don't believe in God, but I miss Him," the book begins. Julian Barnes, an atheist turned agnostic, has decided at the age of 62 to address his fear of death—why should an agnostic fear death who has no faith in an afterlife? How can you be frightened of Nothing? On this simple question Barnes has hung an elegant memoir and meditation, a deep seismic tremor of a book that keeps rumbling and grumbling in the mind for weeks thereafter…Barnes is a novelist and what gives this book life and keeps the reader happily churning forward is his affection for the people who wander in and out
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In this virtuosic memoir, Barnes (Arthur & George) makes little mention of his personal or professional life, allowing his audience very limited ingress into his philosophical musings on mortality. But like Alice tumbling through the rabbit hole, readers will find themselves granted access to an unexpectedly large world, populated with Barnes's "daily companions" and his chosen "ancestors" ("most of them dead, and quite a few of them French," like Jules Renard, Flaubert, Zola). "This is not 'my autobiography,' " Barnes emphasizes in this hilariously unsentimental portrait of his family and childhood. "Part of what I'm doing-which may seem unnecessary-is trying to work out how dead they are." And in this exploration of what remains, the author sifts through unreliable memory to summon up how his ancestors-real and assumed-contemplated death and grappled with the perils and pleasures of "pit-gazing." If Barnes's self-professed "amateur" philosophical rambling feels occasionally self-indulgent, his vivid description delights. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

At 60 years of age, Barnes-the author of ten novels (most notably, Arthur & George), two books of stories, two essay collections, and a translation of Alphonse Saudet's In the Land of Pain-openly explores in this memoir both his life and his réveil mortel (deadly awakening). The son of an atheist mother and an agnostic father, Barnes describes in a familiar tone his realization of death and mortality with all the wisdom of one of the philosophers, authors, and friends he here so frequently quotes, explaining, e.g., that the notions of God and death should not be conflated because "God might be dead, [but] Death is well alive." Written in London between 2005 and 2007, with some focus on religion and morals, this work addresses the present as well as the many options that exist in the almost unforeseeable but always inevitable future. Whether God and an afterlife exist is ultimately left up to the reader to decide. Recommended for academic and public libraries of all sizes. [See Prepub Alert, LJ5/1/08.]
—David L. Reynolds

Kirkus Reviews
Life's a bichon, and then you die. Elegant and eloquent, Barnes (Arthur & George, 2006, etc.) arrives a touch belatedly on a well-worked scene: namely, English writers pondering and arguing the existence or nonexistence of God. Barnes inclines toward the golden mean: "I don't believe in God," he writes, "but I miss Him." He was once more inclined to the atheism of Hitchens, Dawkins et al., but now, 62 years on, he admits to less certainty and "more awareness of ignorance," to say nothing of a growing understanding that the good times on this side of the grass are finite. On that point, one of this slim memoir's finest moments is a vignette of just a couple of paragraphs about disposing of his recently deceased parents' stuff, sending some of it off to the consignment shop, some to the recycling center and shamefacedly tossing the rest and feeling a little queasy in the bargain, "as if I had buried my parents in a paper bag rather than a proper coffin." All this musing on death and the divine makes Pascal's wager an ever more attractive proposition, even if Barnes readily recognizes that one of the most powerful impulses for religion is the knowledge-and consequent dread-of death, the great divide in life being between those who fear the end and those who do not. Rambling along amiably, the author stops to look in on some famous last words-Hegel's, for one, who said before expiring, "Only one man ever understood me, and he didn't understand me." Barnes also composes a lovely, oh-so-English self-effacing obituary for himself, confessing to a love of love, friendship, books and the wine bottle. He ends with a meditation on how that obituary might be occasioned, though the reader willhope that he proves right in reckoning himself only three-fourths of the way down the walk toward the light. Gentle and lucid-a welcome change from the polemical tone of so many books on the matter (or antimatter, if you like) of the big guy upstairs.
From the Publisher
A Globe and Mail Best Book 
A New York Times Notable Book

“This brilliant meditation on death, a family memoir, and an argument with God (whom the author doesn’t believe in, but misses) lays Barnes bare like no other previous work.” Zsuzsi Gartner, The Globe and Mail
“Because his style has always been exceedingly irreverent and anything but lugubrious, he makes this horrible of all horrible subjects a light, amusing diversion almost.... Whether you believe spending a little regular time getting used to the idea that one day there will be no eyeballs in that skull of yours or you wish to avoid the unpleasant truth for now, picking up Barnes’s death ramblings might be as good a way to spend some of the time you have left as any.” Edmonton Journal
“A double-jointed performance in which Barnes lets his sharp, obsessive mind wander in search of some kind of meaning. . . . If he doesn’t come up with any answers here, he asks a lot of provocative and fascinating questions. Call him Mr. Meaningful.” Ottawa Citizen

“Barnes is neither depressed, nor depressing. He is honest and fantastically unconventional in discussing what is a matter of curiosity and concern to everyone who expects one day to die.... Death is inescapable and, in some manner to be revealed only at a later date, is approaching. If Barnes doesn’t make the prospect more palatable, he certainly makes it more stimulating.” The Gazette

The Barnes & Noble Review
Socrates bedeviled his fellow Athenians by asking them logically systematic questions that disproved certain of their tenets and beliefs he considered to be mistaken. Example: Laches' assertion "Courage is a sort of endurance of the soul," subjected to an hour or so of Socratic bedevilment -- one of the famous "dialogues" that Plato recorded -- is amended to "Courage is a wise endurance of the soul." This method was called elenchus, -- "scrutiny" or "refutation," depending on what dictionary or other source you use. Socratic elenchus is the seed from which has grown a tree of Inquiry whose branches include scientific experimentation, legal cross-examination, some aspects of mathematics, psychoanalysis, and certain kinds of literary essays.

It is the last two that bear most closely on the strange and marvelous new book Nothing to Be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes, four-time Man Booker fiction-prize shortlistee, translator, and all-around international person of letters. Its publisher, Knopf, calls this book a "memoir" -- bait-and-switch publishing signage, seems to me, because it is really an extended meditation about death and the author's fear of it. In any case, this work resembles in some important ways Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, which in turn makes heavy use of Socratic elenchus.

"What on earth is he talking about?" you may well be asking at this point, and so I'll tell you: In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud thoroughly analyzes previous theories of the origin and meaning of dreams, systematically disproves them, and then proposes his own ideas on the subject. In Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Barnes sets up all the classic efforts to ease the fear of death (afterlife, immortality through artistic creation, reincarnation, the fact that without death we could not have life, etc.) and, as Freud does to previous dream theories, through a sort of essayistic elenchus, knocks them silly.

The trouble is -- at least for Barnes -- nothing takes their place. Literally nothing, thus the at-first-glance anodyne but finally diabolically Stygian title. It is not as it first hits the ear -- pleasant reassurance. It's the opposite. Barnes is frightened -- obsessively terrified -- of the nothingness of death. He makes Woody Allen's famous thanatophobia ("I'm not afraid of death -- I just don't want to be there when it happens") look like existential-terror chicken feed.

Despite the mordant wit, erudition, and typically British understatement of Nothing to Be Frightened Of, the fear and trembling at its heart are always palpable, lurking in the background or looming in the foreground, and they probably explain why the publisher of this book is trying to dress it in the sheep's clothing of "memoir." There are very sad and funny family and growing-up details included here -- included quite regularly, in fact. Barnes, describing a point in his adolescence, says that given his mother's atheism and father's agnosticism ("brisk irreligion" he calls this heritage), he might have become Jewish, because he "went to a school where, out of 900 boys, 150 were Jewish. On the whole, they seemed both socially and sartorially more advanced; they had better shoes...and they knew about girls." He recounts his arrival at Oxford, where he announced early on to a chaplain, when offered a chance to "read the lesson" in chapel, "I'm afraid I'm a happy atheist" and to the "captain of boats," who offered him a chance to try out to row for Oxford, "I'm afraid I'm an aesthete."

With ruefulness and tacit forgiveness, he also conveys his parents' emotional reticence. He lets his older brother, Jonathan, a philosopher with whom Barnes seems at once close and at sword's point, do the talking, in a conversation one imagines they must have had as the author was thinking about this book:

He thinks they were good parents, "reasonably fond of us," tolerant and generous.... Highly conventional -- better, typical of their class period.... But," he continues, "I suppose their most remarkable characteristic ... was the complete, or almost complete, lack of emotion.... I incline to think that the strongest feeling Mother ever allowed herself was severe irritation, while Father no doubt knew all about boredom."

Jonathan's terse, corrective, and hugely funny comments throughout the book sometimes threaten to steal the show from Julian.

Barnes summons up other memories and anecdotes as well: teaching in a French Catholic school while he was at Oxford -- perhaps the origin of his lifelong Francophilia and an early indication that he would write the superb novel Flaubert's Parrot -- his work as a translator, various incidents from the lives of writers and artists he admires, particularly (natch!) the French (Renard, Flaubert, Stendhal, Ravel). And he digresses into epistemology and neuroscience and the inevitable obsolescence of our entire species and the life cycle of penguins. Despite a few too-abrupt interruptions and course changes, Barnes keeps the structural lines unusually taut for an essay: you want to know what's going to happen next. Unity also comes from the implicit understanding that everything here directly or indirectly ends up so much wheat for the Grim Reaper. Barnes dwells on the woeful details of his parents' deaths. He rejects religion's promises of an afterlife and supplies a devastating analysis of immortality through writing:

First, you fall out of print.... Then a brief revival, if you're lucky, with a title or two reprinted; then another fall, and a period when a few graduate students, pushed for a thesis topic, will wearily turn your pages and wonder why you write so much. Eventually the publishing house forgets...society changes ...and humanity evolves a little further, as evolution carries out its purposeless purpose.... At some point between now and the six-billion-years-away death of the planet, every writer will have his or her last reader.

Nothing to be Frightened Of makes short work of the idea of a "good death," quoting with approbation and agreement Sherwin Nuland's observation that just about everyone is terrified at the end, save possibly for the lucky person who, at the age of 106, enjoying reasonable health but just about to begin the inevitable decline, is felled by a falling safe or a catastrophic stroke. One would imagine that this book, in essence a Socrato-Freudian dismantling of every traditional consolation for death anyone has ever thought of -- including "living on through your children"-- and a frank admission of personal dread would plunge almost any reader into despair or at least dismay.

But it doesn't. It doesn't for two reasons. One is that it is so good -- an object of high literary quality and, paradoxically, great good humor that made this reader not care, even if only temporarily, about the sharp Scythe that awaits us all. His book is a poison that becomes, at least for a while, its own antidote. The second reason, which Barnes puts forward as one way of minimizing death's terror and then discards, is tied securely to the first. It comes, strangely enough, by way of that arch-atheist, Richard Dawkins, who simply says how lucky, statistically speaking, each one of us is to be here at all. The incalculable amount of happenstance that it took to produce you and me explains why religious people in particular refer to life as a "gift." It is a gift, even if there is no giver, as Mr. Barnes and I suspect, and as Richard Dawkins claims to know for a fact.

Dawkins refers to the unborn trillions of potential people who never got to be born -- because, for example, their almost-fathers missed the trains that their almost-mothers were riding on, or some other, equally arbitrary failure to connect. Barnes finds this idea of the wild contingency of our existence of no soothing use to the awful idea of having to die. I have often thought vaguely about this same kind of mathematical salve for mortality before, but it was only when I read Barnes's airy rejection of it that it seemed to me suddenly and almost miraculously comforting. Assuming any sort of decent life (which I know, sadly, is a major assumption), we are amazingly lucky to be here, in part to be able to read books like this one. If dying is the cost of living, it's a steep price, but worth it.

I don't quite see why or how Barnes so casually refuses to find solace in the axiom that if we didn't die, we would never have been alive -- never have had a hot-fudge sundae or sex, never have seen the sun set, never have awakened to a good cup of coffee, never have felt sleep restore us, never have known love. I would like to talk to him about this. Before it's too late. --Daniel Menaker

Author of the novel The Treatment and two books of short stories, Daniel Menaker is former Executive Editor-in-Chief of Random House and fiction editor of The New Yorker. His reviews and other writings have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Slate.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307389985
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/6/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 266,607
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 8.06 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

Julian Barnes

JULIAN BARNES is the author of over twenty books, for which he received the Man Booker Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the David Cohen Prize for Literature and the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; in France, the Prix Médicis and the Prix Femina, and in 2004 he was named Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture; and in Austria, the State Prize for European Literature. His work has been translated into more than thirty languages. He lives in London.


Julian Barnes once told London's Observer that he writes fiction "to tell beautiful, exact, and well-constructed lies which enclose hard and shimmering truths." Indeed, this is what Barnes does, sometimes spiking his lies with fact -- most notably in Flaubert's Parrot, the novel that became his breakthrough book. The story of a retired doctor obsessed with the French author, it combines a literary detective story with a character study of its detective, including facts about Flaubert along the way.

Before Flaubert's Parrot propelled him into the company of Ian McEwan and Martin Amis in British authordom, Barnes had been moderately successful with the novels Metroland (which later became the 1997 movie starring Emily Watson and Christian Bale) and Before She Met Me. He was also known to Brits as a newspaper TV critic. Parrot and Barnes's subsequent "Letters from London" in The New Yorker helped expand the author's Stateside following.

"A lot of novelists set up a kind of franchise, and turn out a familiar product," friend and fellow author Jay McInerney told the Guardian in 2000. "But what I like about Jules's work is that he's like an entrepreneur who starts up a new company every time out." Among other ambitious themes, Barnes has explored the collapse of communism (The Porcupine) the Disneyfication of culture (England, England), the simple dynamics of relationships (Talking It Over and its sequel, Love, Etc.), and the connections between art, religion, and death (The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters).

Barnes has also produced collections of essays, a translation of Alphonse Daudet's In the Land of Pain, and a family memoir (Nothing to Be Frightened Of) that also serves as a meditation on mortality.

Good To Know

In 2000, a cybersquatting professor acquired the Internet rights to and several other authors' domain names; Barnes later won his name back, and the domain is now an informational site run by a fan with Barnes's permission. Barnes had protested the professor's actions, accusing him of usurpation; but his opponent might have responded by quoting from Barnes's own (albeit satirical) England, England: "Indeed, wasn't there something old-fashioned about the whole concept of ownership, or rather its acquisition by formal contract, in which title is received in exchange for consideration given?.... It would have been unfair to call Sir Jack Pitman a barbarian, though some did; but there stirred within him a longing to revisit pre-classical, pre-bureaucratic methods of acquiring ownership. Methods such as theft, conquest and pillage, for example."

Barnes wrote four mystery novels under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh, all of which are now out of print; the novels starred Duffy, a bisexual ex–police officer. Kavanagh's bio read in part: "Having devoted his adolescence to truancy, venery and petty theft, he left home at seventeen and signed on as a deckhand on a Liberian tanker." Kavanagh also happens to be the last name of Barnes's agent and wife, Pat.

Barnes was a deputy literary editor under Martin Amis at the New Statesman from 1980–82 and was also a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. Amis and Barnes later had a falling-out that became fodder for the press when Amis wrote about it in his memoir, Experience; Barnes is mum on the subject, but the disagreement arose when Amis defected from Barnes's wife to another agent.

Barnes has a cameo in the film Bridget Jones's Diary as himself, but in a lesser role than he has in Helen Fielding's book. In the book, Bridget is flummoxed upon encountering Barnes and embarrasses herself; but the more recognizable Salman Rushdie was substituted for Barnes in the film version.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Dan Kavanagh
    2. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 19, 1946
    2. Place of Birth:
      Leicester, England
    1. Education:
      Degree in modern languages from Magdalen College, Oxford, 1968

Read an Excerpt

Nothing to Be Frightened Of

By Julian Barnes
Copyright © 2008

Julian Barnes
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780307269638

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 inone 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.


Excerpted from Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes
Copyright © 2008 by Julian Barnes. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

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?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 17 of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 2, 2009

    Nothing To Be Frightened Of

    How can you deny a writer whose disquisition on death begins: "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him. That's what I say when the question is put." Julian Barnes inserts his writer's hook at the start and happily never lets up. The theme of our extinction always is sobering, but in Barnes's memoir it is never without humor.

    The "brisk irreligion" of his parents and their passing are traced in honest detail. Interspersed are comments on mortality from the famous and near famous. Philosopher Bertrand Russell, an unwavering atheist,is asked what he would do if he "found himself faced by a deity he had always denied. 'Well,' Russell used to reply, 'I would go up to Him, and I would say, "You didn't give us enough evidence.""

    Nothing To Be Frightened Of is beautifully crafted by a superior writer whose narrative moves with swift, sure distinction.

    Robert Cecil

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 12, 2010

    This is why I read

    Every once in awhile a book comes along, say 1 out of 50 books, that reminds me of why I read. This is one of those books. Intellectually challenging, but never self-important or condescending, it is at the same time very humorous in a subtle, understated way. Many readers will not be familiar with the numerous literary and artistic references, but it will not get in the way of thoroughly enjoying the author's musings on death and the issue of 'what happens next'. Well written and very, very good.

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  • Posted March 30, 2009

    Review of Nothing to Be Frightened Of

    Very informative, entertaining and funny. Much to learn about the history of what the illuminati have thought of death.

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