Tuesday, April 10, 2018

I : Illness - Life - Death (When Breath Becomes Air - Book Review) #AtoZchallenge

Illness & Death are morbid topics and they generally make tragic subjects for books, films and theater. 

So when I picked up this book titled "When Breath Becomes Air" by Paul Kalanithi, I was apprehensive and I was sure I won't like it. But it came highly recommended. As I turned the pages of the book, I realized that it is not about Illness and Death, but about Life that punctuates them. And that makes this book - despite its medical jargon and references to literary masterpieces which I don't have a capacity to appreciate truly - a beautiful and heartfelt piece of art. 

Before I move on to my views on the book, here are  few things you must know about the book and the author: 

1. The book is a true story -Paul's autobiographical account of key aspects of his life.

2. Paul wrote it when he was detected with stage IV lung cancer. He knew he will die sooner than he expected to but didn't know when. That is when he wrote this book.

3. The book remained incomplete in a form of an open manuscript when he died and his wife ensured it gets published.

4. Ironically, Paul himself was a neurosurgeon, who had a great life and career in front of him. He had never imagined a life of a patient.

5. Paul had a BA and MA in English Literature, and a BA in human biology. He was an MPhil in history and philosophy of science and medicine. He completed his residency training in neurological surgery and post doctoral fellowship in neuroscience, partially when we has fighting with his cancer.

6. His education and pursuit of excellence in what he was doing and his quest to find meaning of life, makes this book highly Indian, despite its American milieu.

My views on the book: 
  • Imagine a life of glory, which is meant to serve a larger purpose cut short by a tragedy. This book is an inspiring tale of finding purpose first in your life and then even in your death. Paul delves deep into these subjects, and despite facing adverse circumstances and facing a certain death, he comes across as a brave man. You will feel a tinge of sadness throughout your reading, but it is a happy book after all.
  • The book gives us life goals that are difficult to achieve, but the author achieves them at 36 years of age. It is a must read if you are looking for inspiration in your life.
  • Paul details some of the medical procedures during his residency. While technically I didn't understand them completely, but one of his earlier experiences of delivering two premature twins who die is gut wrenching. It is amazing what doctors have to go through. But are all doctors that sensitive?
  • Though briefly, Paul also talks about the profession of medicine itself. Why medicine can't be just a job? Why most doctors choose easy and commercial fields of medicine? How doctors get so immune to emotions that they start treating patients as statistics? He raises interesting questions here, but we never get fully formed answers. May be before he had cogent answers, he became a patient himself. 
This is an extract from the book, with which I would like to close the post. This for me describes the spirit of the book aptly:

Years ago, it had occurred to me that Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing : the defining characteristic of the organism is striving. Describing life otherwise was like painting a tiger without stripes. After so many years of living with death, I'd come to understand that easiest death wasn't necessarily the best. We talked it over. Our family gave their blessing. We decided to have a child. We would carry on living, instead of dying.

My last year's challenge post from letter I was about that instant that get frozen in your memories. Read it here.

My theme for this year's #AtoZchallenge is all about writing stories, anecdotes and observations from my life in form of easy to read listicles. You can read the theme reveal post here.


Leslie Moon said...

Never an easy topic to address but personally it is something you have to come to terms with.
I work in hospice so I deal with death daily.

Charan Deep Singh said...

Yes, the book is a personal account of Paul, who went through it... Must read if you work in hospice Leslie...