My previously unemotional self has recently been reading a spate of poetry and books that manage to wring water out of tear ducts which haven’t seen action in months. When Breath Becomes Air is no exception – it is searingly beautiful, quite literally contemplating the nature of life and death.
Paul Kalanithi was a successful neurosurgeon, but then he is hit with lung cancer. This book is, at its most base form, about his life and death, but also inevitably leads one to think about life and death as concepts. But I’ll leave these big ideas temporarily – probably until midnight, when I’ll just be lying in bed contemplating the minuscule nature of my existence.
The fact that you know from the outset that Kalanithi will die, is already dead, adds an undercurrent of sadness from the very beginning. I remember saying that, even whilst I was reading the introduction, ‘I know I’m going to bawl my eyes out’. But surprisingly, the tears didn’t start flowing until the latter half, when (in my case, anyway) I was hit by a wave of respect for this talented man. Illness is a bastard to deal with. But Kalanithi does not wallow in self-pity; he keeps working and striving for more, and that’s where the respect comes in. And that’s also when the tears started.
This is a story of a neurosurgeon and a friend and a lover and a father and a son, of how the doctor can with one foul stroke become the patient, this is a life. It’s a human story. We’re all going to die. The notion of not being is something that I’ve still not got to grips with, and When Breath Becomes Air brings this to the limelight. We’re all going to die, so why the hell are you buggering about stalking your best friend’s ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend on Facebook? This book reminded me of my – our – humanity, of the fact that we are all mortal, but also of the virtues that Kalanithi and thousands of others share. As a doctor and a surgeon, Kalanithi had to be compassionate and sacrificial and caring etc, etc, – and this shines through. Yes, this is very much rooted in the medical world, but it’s a human story. Please, if you only read one book this year, make it this.
A message that I got was to grab life by the (insert choice of noun/body part here). Kiss someone. Dance in the rain. Love. The more I think about this book, the more I realise how important it is. Read it.