Monday, May 2, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This is the second autobiography that I've read in a row and this one was completely different in some ways - here terminal illness was the enemy rather than an autocratic state.  Yet, it was similar in that it showed the absolute strength of the human spirit when it is most severely challenged.

Paul Kalanithi, who succumbed to lung cancer in 2015, was a brilliant neurosurgeon/neuroscientist who was just about to complete his specialty when he was struck by the cancer.  Prior to medical school he had studied English literature and the history and philosophy of science and medicine so had also dreamed of eventually writing a book.  He was originally moved to study the brain in order to understand how something as complex and language and communication could be physically explained.  With his patients he was always fascinated by the process of dying and how the patient and the families came to terms with it.

So, when faced with his own mortality he set out to write a book that would document his dying process and serve as a guide for others facing the same circumstances (which he recognized is everyone at some point - they just don't always know when).  Personally, not being that philosophical, I found myself skimming some of the more esoteric sections, but I was fascinated by Kalanithi's personal story.  I also enjoyed how he wove in applicable passages from literature.  The epilogue by Kalanithi's wife, which outlines his last few days and his literal deathbed request that his family see his book through to publication, was also extremely moving.

At times depressing, at other times hopeful, this was a very interesting read by someone with a perspective that we don't often get to share.  This is not an easy read and I don't recommend it for mere entertainment, but it does contain some insights that are helpful, if not pleasant, to share.

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