Throughout Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Barnes unsparingly portrays his parents' final years (laconic father; bossy, vain mother), turns for guidance to Montaigne, Stendhal, Flaubert, Jules Renard, Stravinsky and Ravel, and e-mails his brother, Jonathan, for his views on personal extinction. An expert on the Pre-Socratics and Aristotle, the older Barnes displays an appropriately stoic unconcern. Once, when this expert on ancient Greek was believed to be dying, he breathed what seemed likely to be his last words: "Make sure that Ben gets my copy of Bekker's Aristotle." The philosopher's wife found this "insufficiently affectionate."
While some people on their deathbeds dutifully rage against the dying of the light, Barnes prefers those who simply remain true to themselves, who depart this life with, say, a gesture of quiet courtliness: "A few hours before dying in a Naples hospital," the Flaubert scholar Francis Steegmuller "said (presumably in Italian) to a male nurse who was cranking up his bed, 'You have beautiful hands.' " Barnes calls this "a last, admirable catching at a moment of pleasure in observing the world, even as you are leaving it." Similarly, the poet and classicist "A.E. Housman's last words were to the doctor giving him a final -- and perhaps knowingly sufficient -- morphine injection: 'Beautifully done.' "