I know I’m not alone in finding that overly hyped books, have a tendency to be a bit of a letdown. You see them appearing again and again on ‘best of lists’, you spot people on the bus and in coffee shops reading them, they’re made into movies (yes, I am talking about you Girl on a train) and when you finally get round to reading them, you start to wonder if either you’re intellectually inferior to everyone else because you just don’t ‘get it’. I can categorically say with some certainly that When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is not one of those books. It really is as good as everyone’s been saying.
Part I: In Perfect Health I Begin opens with the author’s certainty that he’ll never be a doctor, despite many of his relatives working in the medical profession. This he puts down to his own father’s (a doctor) absences during his childhood. What comes next are his recollections of growing up in Arizona exploring the desert landscape around his new home, his early education and his decision to study English Literature and Human Biology. He studies literature and philosophy as a way of understanding what makes life meaningful but eventually, despite his opening declaration, does decide to become a neurosurgeon. The reason for this, we learn, was as a means of understanding, “How the brain could give rise to an organism capable of finding meaning in the world”. The question he continually asks himself is where biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect. For Paul Kalanithi, “Medical school sharpened my understanding of the relationship between meaning, life and death”.
Why is this important? At the age of 36 the author declares that he had it all, he’d reached, ‘the mountaintop’, meaning the completion of his medical training in neurosurgery and was fielding job offers from major Universities, including Stanford. I’m not giving too much away when I say that what follows is a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. “And with that, the future I had imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated.”
In Part II: Cease Not till Death, we are confronted with the aftermath of his diagnosis. This diagnosis leads to Kalanithi having to reassess what he wants from his life and how he can lead a meaningful life with the shadow of cancer hanging over him. It forces him to question his own mortality and in doing so brings him towards a closer understanding of what his patient’s experience. Knowing what he knows about his chances of survival the author has to reassess what’s important to him and how he wishes to spend the time left, however long that may be.
This is a book about a remarkable individual who tries with great honesty to show us the difficulties in being simultaneously a doctor and a patient. Here is someone who is use to being in control and having to relinquish that to his own doctor becomes a tough learning curve for him.
What I took away from this book was its life affirming message. After reading When Breath Becomes Air it made me want to hold my loved ones closer and tell them how much they mean to me. But it also made me look inwards and question how I would have coped in a similar situation, how would I have lived out the remainder of my life. Despite its subject matter I didn’t find the book depressing rather the opposite. His love of literature shines through in his quotes from the likes of TS Eliot and Nabokov. He looks to the great authors for answers but also comfort, in turn providing comfort no doubt to many readers of this wonderful book. If I could recommend only one book from all I’ve read in 2016, this one would be it.