The son of Michael William McCrum, a Cambridge educated ancient historian, McCrum was educated at Sherborne School, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (MA(Cantab)), and the University of Pennsylvania as a Thouron Scholar.
McCrum was editorial director at Faber & Faber from 1979 to 1989 and editor-in-chief there from 1990 to 1996. He served as literary editor of The Observer for more than ten years. In May 2008 he was appointed associate editor of The Observer.
In August 2017, McCrum's Every Third Thought: On life, death and the endgame was published, taking its title from Shakespeare's play The Tempest. The book was adapted and broadcast as BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week the following month.
In 1995, McCrum suffered a massive stroke. The devastating experience and his recovery is chronicled in My Year Off: Recovering Life After a Stroke. He had been married to Sarah Lyall, an American journalist, for only two months and the book includes diary entries made by his wife. He also became a patron of the UK charity Different Strokes, which provides information and support for younger stroke survivors.
Sarah Lyall, who writes for The New York Times, lived in London from 1995 to 2013 and was the newspaper's London correspondent. She returned to New York with the couple's daughters in 2013; Lyall and McCrum later divorced.
McCrum describes himself as "a confused non-believer".
- In the Secret State. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.
- A Loss of Heart. 1982
- The Fabulous Englishman UK: Hamish Hamilton Ltd, 1984.
- Mainland. New York: Knopf, 1991.
- The Psychological Moment. London: Martin Secker & Warburg, 1993.
- Jubilee. New York: Knopf, 1994. ISBN 0-679-42987-5
- Suspicion. New York: Norton, 1997. ISBN 0-393-04046-1
- The Story of English. New York: Elisabeth Sifton, 1986. (With William Cran and Robert MacNeil)
- My Year Off: Recovering Life After a Stroke. New York: Norton, 1998. ISBN 0-393-04656-7 ISBN 978-0393046564
- P. G. Wodehouse: A Life. New York: Norton, 2004. ISBN 978-0-393-05159-9
- Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language. New York: Norton, 2010. ISBN 978-0-393-06255-7
- The 100 Best Novels in English. London: Galileo, 2015. ISBN 978-1-903-38542-5
- Every Third Thought: On Life, Death and the Endgame. London: Picador, 2017. ISBN 978-1-5098-1528-9
- The 100 Best Non Fiction Books of All Time. London: Galileo, 2018. ISBN 978-1-9033-8583-8
- Foster, Sara; Gullen, Zoe, eds. (2001). Debrett's People of Today (2002 ed.). London: Debrett's. ISBN 9781870520164.
- McCrum, Robert (25 May 2008). "Have blogs been good for books?". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 8 September 2008. Retrieved 25 May 2008.
- McCrum, Robert (25 May 2008). "A thriller in ten chapters". The Observer. Retrieved 25 May 2008.
- "Honorary Graduates" (PDF). Heriot-Watt University. p. 19. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 November 2015. Retrieved 27 September 2022.
- McCrum, Robert (24 August 2017). Every Third Thought: On life, death and the endgame (hardback ed.). Picador. ISBN 978-1509815289.
- Morrison, Blake (6 July 2014). "Every Third Thought by Robert McCrum review – how to think about death". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 4 September 2017.
- Reader: Nicky Henson; Author: Robert McCrum; Abridger: Barry Johnston; Producer: David Roper (4 September 2017). "Book of the Week: Every Third Thought Episode 1 of 5". Book of the Week. BBC. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 4 September 2017.
- "'Sometimes I felt loud and gauche, like a guest who shows up at a memorial service wearing a Hawaiian shirt': the thoughts of a New York Times correspondent on leaving London". Evening Standard. 23 August 2013. Retrieved 27 September 2022.
- "When thoughts often turn to death". The Economist. 19 August 2017. Retrieved 27 September 2022.