Flashes of light

A dreaded diagnosis, and what we gain in losing ourselves

Robert McCrum, once the books editor for the Observer, is a literary man, an official senior citizen since his sixty-fifth birthday in July, and the survivor of a major stroke almost a quarter century ago, which he wrote about in My Year Off. No surprise, then, that he is more inclined to think of death than his contemporaries, or that he took the title of his recent book on the coming passing of the largest generational cohort in Western history, Every Third Thought, from Shakespeare’s philosopher-mage Prospero: “And thence retire me to my Milan, where /Every third thought shall be my grave.”

What may be surprising to readers, as it was to the author, is what McCrum learned wandering about Britain talking to his contemporaries about their thoughts on the endgame. His book, McCrum declared, ended up with more pages devoted to mental than physical worries, because his generation was the...