Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

When-Breath-Becomes-Air-Paul-Kalanithi-1A neurosurgeon and his battle against cancer.

I made it a resolution to read 10 books in 2017, having read none in 2016 (besides this one). I decided to give this book a read after hearing many people rave about it, it was the 2016 nonfiction bestseller, and had great ratings. My expectation was a book similar to Tuesdays with Morrie, where a dying man would share his wisdom on the life’s meaning and how to live life better. It seemed perfect with where I’m at in life right now. However, it wasn’t. I ended up rating it a 4/5, but I think the different expectations made me look for certain things and feel disappointed when it wasn’t there. I definitely skimmed over some details waiting to get to those parts I thought was going to be in there. Hopefully I can remember enough details because it’s been a couple months since I read it.

The book is about an Indian-American named Kalanithi who reflects on his life growing up, to where he is now, and where he is going. Even at a young age, he is a curious individual who sought to learn, and the topics of philosophy and poetry intrigued him. He goes to college seeking to become a writer, is in a masters in literature program at Stanford, but ends up pursuing a career as a neurosurgeon. It held this niche of an intersection in biology, morality, and philosophy that he couldn’t find in writing. Of course, this meant spending the majority of his twenties and early thirties in medical school and residency, and throughout this journey, he recounts and shares the many things he’s seen with students buckling in to pressure, the immense precision he has to work with, and even a friend who committed suicide. Kalanithi’s intellect also shone. He won awards for his research, and was just a few months away from completing his residency. However, his life is upheaved when he discovers he has terminal cancer and decades of his work will soon be evaporated. He shares his difficulties of having to take a leave from his work, coming back and feeling like his life has meaning again, and then finally retreating to a point where he cannot continue.

I actually resonated a lot with Kalanithi’s drive of understanding what makes life meaningful as I’ve always wondered the same. This pursuit of the perfect intersection between passion and a career is what we all hope to find. I think a reason why this book was rated so well was this process of how Kalanithi got to where he is- through his hard work, curiosity-and that it was going to pay off soon, like it should. And that crashing down of this dream doesn’t seem fair. I think this pursuit was well articulated in the book, and it was how people got emotionally invested.

For some reason, despite having a similar drive as well as believing I am in a similar position in terms of working hard and wanting to see that pay off in some form, I had difficulty getting emotionally invested. I remember throughout some of his stories, I was thinking in my mind, to put it bluntly, ‘so many people get cancer so I dont see why your story is sadder than others’. Thinking about it now, it seems really dumb that that should be a criteria, but while reading I was struggling to feel different towards his situation versus others. I started to skim through some paragraphs where he went into the specificity of his doctor visits, etc, because it didnt seem that important. I thought he didn’t really emphasize the ‘reflection’ aspect of the situation he was in. And I guess perhaps it was intentional. For him, he found meaning in his work and he wanted to live that part to its fullest while he still can.

It was also clear to me some key relationships he was exploring. Early on, he tried to wrap his mind around reason and morality around his faith. In another, he painted the image of becoming the patient in a state of helplessness after years of being the one in control as a doctor. I think he did a great job exploring these constructs.

These were the key things that I remember, and in general I think he did an amazing job telling his story and giving us a sense of how he dealt with the constructs I mentioned within the context of his family and friends around him. It was really just that one piece of not getting invested because I was looking for some practicality on how to approach my own life, did I feel a little underwhelmed.

It’s funny that I stumbled on an post on Linkedin today, written today, titled “This Book Left Me in Tears”, with the picture of the title of this book, written by none other than…Bill Gates. Gates said it was one of the best nonfiction books he’s read in a while, and if he were speaking to me, he said he “didn’t love The Last Lecture or Tuesdays with Morrie”. He points to the incredible juxtapositions in the book of life and death, patient and doctor, work and family, faith and reason.

When you don’t reach the same conclusions with Bill Gates, you should probably reread the book.

 

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