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Julian Barnes' Brisk Inquiry Into Death's Meaning

This barbarously intelligent, first-person meditation on mortality by English novelist Julian Barnes is a rare thing in literature. Whether readers will have the stomach for it is another matter. As Emily Dickinson reminds, death will kindly stop for all of us; but who wants to ponder that unnecessarily? Isn't it better, as Turgenev said, to "brush it away like this," with a wave of our hand, and carry on about our days?

Perhaps Turgenev's is the best day-to-day attitude, but if you're a thanatophobe (Barnes' label for the death-fearing or merely mortality-curious among us), Nothing To Be Frightened Of is a marvelously engaging, even uplifting book. By airing his own fears — of dying slowly, painfully, without his faculties — Barnes robs taboos about death of their occult power and proceeds, with a cold, rational eye, to examine the scientific, religious and emotional significance of living finitely.

He begins, movingly, with a memoir of his parents' death, teasing out how he and his brother, a philosopher, deal differently with the knowledge that they are next. The book then zigzags through a series of philosophical arguments and questions. Does belief in the afterlife really make it easier? Can we truly grasp the fact of our own demise? When we die in our 70s or 80s or 90s (if we're lucky), we are saying goodbye to old age, not to the life we lived in our youth. Is there consolation in that?

Unlike Barnes' recent novel, the silkily epic Arthur & George, Nothing to be Frightened Of strikes a knotty, interrogative voice, thick with parenthetical pauses, caveats and ironic asides. Reading it feels like dropping in on an argument already in progress, which, in essence, it is.

Barnes frequently alludes to his favorite French writers, including Jules Renard, who responded to the colloquialism of the book's title thusly: "The word that is most true, most exact, most filled with meaning is the word 'nothing.'" Briskly, rigorously, this unusual book has given us something to think about it until that nothingness comes knocking.

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John Freeman is the editor of Grantamagazine. A former president of the National Book Critics Circle, his criticism has appeared in publications around the world, including The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times Book Review. His latest book is The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox.