Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air swells with hope and intellect but leaves room for sorrow.
What makes this book a must read is Paul’s enduring love for literature and the inclusion of patient-doctor dynamics he learned during his practice.
At 36, Paul discovers he has lung cancer(he was a nonsmoker). At this stage of diagnosis he has several things to ponder on: His new life with wife Lucy, the future of having children, continuing residency- all of these thoughts begin to fly out the proverbial window as Paul realizes he will be leaving his family behind.
As the reader, you are in his head and his heart. His ability to see past his mortality and ramble onward with jewels of poetry is astounding, refreshing.
He graduated from Stanford University with a BA and MA in English literature and so throughout the book he sprinkles timeless quotes from T.S. Eliot, or Shakespeare, and Walt-Whitman:
“What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain.”(From When Breath Becomes Air, Kalanithi, P., 2016)
Throughout his account, Paul shows us how it can be rough vacillating between patient-doctor roles. He describes his first time cutting into a cadaver, the grueling hours of a brain surgeon, rude patients and tired, nonchalant doctors.
Then, there are the moments when he had to strip himself of “doctor” labels and look up to specialists for answers and support.
However, what makes this book golden syrup for the soul; what makes it a potential inclusion for literature in all academic spheres, is Kalanithi’s way with words. He faces death with literature in one hand and a scalpel in the other, a warrior who stood brave and true and yet died so young.
He passed on March 2015.
But his spirit lives on in this powerful book.
*Book received for free for my unbiased review from Netgalley