By Lynn Willoughby
When Breath Becomes Air ~ Paul Kalanithi
I put off reading this book for a long time as the content sounded very grim. Now, I wish I had read it sooner. And while I seldom re-read a book, this IS one I will visit again.
It is the autobiographical memoirs of Paul’s life and illness. He is battling stage four metastic lung cancer. The first part of the book deals with his early life, his love of literature, his education and training as a neurosurgeon and as a neural scientist. He is constantly on a quest to find the meaning of life and the relationship between the mind and brain. And he is always trying to improve his doctor/patient relationship. He realizes early in his residency that brain surgery is always scary and he worries that his patients will not see him as a human being. He sees his duty to his patients as one of treating the body, but also the mind and the spirit of the person.
In the second half of the book Paul continues his study of the mind – but from the perspective of someone actually experiencing deterioration and death. This memoir is not so much about cancer and death as it is about the author’s journey of discovering his strengths and vulnerabilities. Indeed, it is more philosophical than physical as Paul attempts to satisfy himself with an answer to the age old question …”what makes a virtuous and meaningful life?”
As Paul faces his own mortality he wrote “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’ “
This book is haunting, well written, interesting from beginning to end and even very often funny. None of it is maudlin or exaggerated. It is a keeper for your library.