Excerpt from When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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When Breath Becomes Air

by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi X
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
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    Jan 2016, 256 pages

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Kim Kovacs
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When Breath Becomes Air

A few years later, I hadn't thought much more about a career but had nearly completed degrees in English literature and human biology. I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain. Meaning, while a slippery concept, seemed inextricable from human relationships and moral values. T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land resonated profoundly, relating meaninglessness and isolation, and the desperate quest for human connection. I found Eliot's metaphors leaking into my own language. Other authors resonated as well. Nabokov, for his awareness of how our suffering can make us callous to the obvious suffering of another. Conrad, for his hypertuned sense of how miscommunication between people can so profoundly impact their lives. Literature not only illuminated another's experience, it provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection. My brief forays into the formal ethics of analytic philosophy felt dry as a bone, missing the messiness and weight of real human life.

Throughout college, my monastic, scholarly study of human meaning would conflict with my urge to forge and strengthen the human relationships that formed that meaning. If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining? Heading into my sophomore summer, I applied for two jobs: as an intern at the highly scientific Yerkes Primate Research Center, in Atlanta, and as a prep chef at Sierra Camp, a family vacation spot for Stanford alumni on the pristine shores of Fallen Leaf Lake, abutting the stark beauty of Desolation Wilderness in Eldorado National Forest. The camp's literature promised, simply, the best summer of your life. I was surprised and flattered to be accepted. Yet I had just learned that macaques had a rudimentary form of culture, and I was eager to go to Yerkes and see what could be the natural origin of meaning itself. In other words, I could either study meaning or I could experience it.

After delaying for as long as possible, I finally chose the camp. Afterward, I dropped by my biology adviser's office to inform him of my decision. When I walked in, he was sitting at his desk, head in a journal, as usual. He was a quiet, amiable man with heavy-lidded eyes, but as I told him my plans, he became a different person entirely: his eyes shot open, and his face flushed red, flecks of spit spraying.

"What?" he said. "When you grow up, are you going to be a scientist or a . . . chef?"

Eventually the term ended and I was on the windy mountain road to camp, still slightly worried that I'd made a wrong turn in life. My doubt, however, was short-lived. The camp delivered on its promise, concentrating all the idylls of youth: beauty manifest in lakes, mountains, people; richness in experience, conversation, friendships. Nights during a full moon, the light flooded the wilderness, so it was possible to hike without a headlamp. We would hit the trail at two a.m., summiting the nearest peak, Mount Tallac, just before sunrise, the clear, starry night reflected in the flat, still lakes spread below us. Snuggled together in sleeping bags at the peak, nearly ten thousand feet up, we weathered frigid blasts of wind with coffee someone had been thoughtful enough to bring. And then we would sit and watch as the first hint of sunlight, a light tinge of day blue, would leak out of the eastern horizon, slowly erasing the stars. The day sky would spread wide and high, until the first ray of the sun made an appearance. The morning commuters began to animate the distant South Lake Tahoe roads. But craning your head back, you could see the day's blue darken halfway across the sky, and to the west, the night remained yet unconquered—pitch-black, stars in full glimmer, the full moon still pinned in the sky. To the east, the full light of day beamed toward you; to the west, night reigned with no hint of surrender. No philosopher can explain the sublime better than this, standing between day and night. It was as if this were the moment God said, "Let there be light!" You could not help but feel your speck like existence against the immensity of the mountain, the earth, the universe, and yet still feel your own two feet on the talus, reaffirming your presence amid the grandeur.

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From the Book, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Copyright © by Corcovado, Inc. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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