Book #2: ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi

My 2017 New Year’s Resolution is to read 20 non-academic, non-fiction books before the year is over. I especially want to read books on topics I don’t know much about, or books that oppose my attitudes towards the world. If anyone has any ideas for a book I could add to my list, please let me know.

I’m not very keen on writing reviews (but more than that, I’m not very good at it) so I won’t be making any comment on the quality of the books- but I thought it would be nice to briefly summarise what I learnt from each book I read, and what I’ll take from it.

My second book was ‘When Breath Becomes Air‘ by Paul Kalanithi. This was one of the best books I have ever read. Kalanithi describes his journey from an English Literature degree to becoming a Neurosurgeon. He grapples with his job as a neurosurgeon – but also his emotional responsibility to his patients. The workload takes a toll on him, but his passion drives him.

Things take a turn when he finds himself with a cancer diagnosis. Suddenly – he is overwhelmed with a flood of feelings. It left me wondering: how would I feel if this diagnosis hit me? Kalanithi dedicated his life to his job – but he never wrote the book he always imagined he would. He had made a plan for his future but now that future was now. To make matters worse, he had no idea just how long he had, and for how long he could viably work, or what he was really capable of. Should he continue to work – but what’s the point when he’ll have to quit eventually? Should he have a child – or will that make death more painful? Should he start writing a book – but will he have time to finish? In the end he decides to do all three. He meets his daughter, works for as long as he can and his book is completed (albeit, posthumously).

Planning for the future isn’t futile – but in many ways it is an exercise in theoreticals. When Kalanithi’s future changed, shortened, became cloudy – he had to begin to live in it. The distant future he imagined had become the present he was living. The book made me think about planning, timelines and the things that matter most.

The book was a page turner. I finished it in about three sittings over two days and intend to read it again soon. Kalanithi’s transformation from Doctor to Patient is much larger than just that. He goes from being active to passive, giving treatment to receiving, withholding information to having information withheld.

I was reminded of existentialism, which I read about in January, which asks are you the subject of your own life or the object of someone else’s. Kalanithi describes in excruciating detail his movement from subject to object, and his attempt to liberate himself back to the role of subject.

I’m currently reading “Notes on Blindness” by John Hull and “Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future” by Paul Mason.


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