Winner of the 2016 BookBrowse Nonfiction Award
For readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, a profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir by a young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis who attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?
At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade's worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi's transformation from a naïve medical student "possessed," as he wrote, "by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life" into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.
Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. "I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything," he wrote. "Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: 'I can't go on. I'll go on.'" When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.
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 ...
Underlying the bare biographical narrative is the author's incredible curiosity about the meaning of life. "Where did biology, morality, literature, and philosophy intersect?" he ponders. As the book progresses, it becomes more philosophical, searching for what it takes for people to find significance in their existence as it becomes apparent their time is finite.
(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).
Full Review (708 words).
The late Paul Kalanithi, a non-smoking neurosurgeon, was diagnosed with squamous cell lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is his autobiography.
"Cancer" is a name given to a collection of diseases in which a set of cells in the body begin dividing abnormally and without stopping. Unlike their healthy counterparts, cancer cells lack the mechanism that tells them to stop multiplying, as well as the process known as programmed cell death (aka "apoptosis"), which gets rid of unneeded cells. These damaged cells eventually crowd out the good and may lead to death if the condition can't be treated.
Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in men (following prostate cancer) and women (after breast cancer). About 221,200 new cases of ...
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