After an interesting (although hardly revolutionary) introduction to the book and its central concept -- that philosophers have something to teach us about death, the single largest defining fact of our lives, through the way they themselves died -- Simon Critchley tackles the deaths (and sometimes the lives) of some 190 philosophers spanning seven millennia at a very rapid clip.
After the well-written and thought-provoking introduction revolving around the role of death -- and thoughts of death -- in philosophy and life, the remainder of the book can feel jarring. In some cases, the philosopher's life and work -- and even their death -- is disposed of in only one or two witty sentence. In others, there is a lot about their deaths, but Critchley doesn't always deliver on his promise to explain how the way in which his subjects met those deaths ties into either their personal philosophies or into a philosophy of death. Sometimes, that just isn't relevant, it seems. The best moments in the book -- such as the discussion of the atheist, David Hume, meeting his end contentedly -- stand out simply because they are relatively rare. In a few cases, Critchley has to admit he doesn't even know how his subject died -- in which case, why is that philosopher included? In a handful of cases, he exaggerates the story behind the philosopher's death, only for the reader to discover that they have been misled. For instance, Simone Weil, he claims in the introduction, starved herself to death in sympathy with her beleagured countrymen in France. In fact, the exiled philosopher limited her caloric intake during the early years of World War II in exile from her homeland to what was available to French citizens under the Nazi regime. She didn't deliberately starve herself to death; she weakened her health so that she was unable to fight off the illness that killed her.
So why, then, do I give this 3.5 stars? Simply because it's a witty romp through a topic that is relatively rarely discussed except in hushed tones and with trite references to Kubler-Ross (who, yes, makes a very brief appearance here, as well). It's also the kind of book that may provoke interest in the philosophers being discussed by readers who would otherwise never pick up a more weighty tome on, say, Hume or Spinoza. The premise is also solid and the author's grasp of his subject is more solid than his delivery sometimes implies. It's also refreshing to see a philosopher write something so accessible.
That said, this is not a book likely to appeal to anyone who heads straight for the philosophy section whenever they enter a bookstore. There's little or no new thinking on the topic of mortality, and serious-minded philosophy students, already be familiar with much of the contents, are less likely to find Critchley's whimsical approach to his subject either amusing or intriguing. For readers with a passing interest in philosophy, it's worth a look, but you probably will want to pick up a paperback copy or find it in a library.
Anyone looking for a very personal and extraordinarily eloquent series of random musings on the subject of death itself couldn't do better than check out Julian Barnes's new book on the subject, Nothing to Be Frightened Of. It's not as comforting as Critchley's book ends up being (whether or not Critchley intends it to be!); it's the personal ruminations of one of Britain's best writers (Flaubert's Parrot, et. al.) on aging and the need to come to terms with death not only in the abstract but as something that he will encounter sooner rather than later.