Growing up, I was one of those kids that’d go to the library and check out a full stack of books, read them all in a week, and go back for more. In the midst of all those books were always the few that hit me hard. The ones with characters and stories that resonated so deeply with me that I empathized for them with my whole heart. Those books fostered my love for reading.
But now, reading is difficult. It is hard to sit down and indulge in books because I get distracted. With the ever-growing presence of technology, my attention span is much shorter than it was as a kid. Along with many others, I am guilty of holding onto books for far too long, claiming that “I’ll get to it when I have the time” even though I could definitely make the time.
That is why I wanted to create this series of posts on my blog specifically tailored to reading books. Eventually I want to expand to articles, essays, and other forms of writing, but for now my goal is to constantly be reading new books and writing about them on my blog. I want to open up and rediscover my love for reading, and encourage myself to constantly be taking in new works.
The first book I want to talk about is When Breath Becomes Air. It is written by the late Paul Kalanithi, a brilliant neurosurgeon, after being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and realizing that his time left to live is limited.
When I was loaned loaned me this book, it took me a long time to pick it up. But I’m glad I did. I won’t spoil the specific details of the book for you because you should read it for yourself. What is interesting about Kalanithi’s story is that he often struggles with questions regarding life and death, but in the context of what he describes as the intersection of biology, morality, literature, and philosophy.
Throughout the book, there is a constant theme of understanding death, grappling with it, and what it means to be in the face of it. Death had supposedly become familiar to him through his work treating patients as a neurosurgeon, but when he was forced to face it personally, it was unrecognizable. When he received his diagnosis, he was ready to die. He knew what was coming. But when his treatments started to work and he faced the prospect of living longer than he originally thought, his focus shifted to what sort of purpose his life would hold with an unknown amount of time left to live. Through his book you get to see how Kalanithi navigates what it means to live out his last years to the fullest that he possibly can, battling questions of having children or moving across the country away from his family’s support system for a dream job. He continually asks himself what the consequences of his decisions will mean for the people he leaves behind if in one, five, or ten years he won’t be alive.
Despite the sadness of the circumstances behind the book, what’s inspiring about it is that he never cowered in the face of death. Instead, he led a life full of integrity, love, and intelligence. It is clear that he was someone who thought so much outside of himself and had so much to give to others while still maintaining a level of self-awareness that made him the brilliant surgeon, scientist, husband, father, and person that he was. At one point during the book while contemplating whether to have a child, his wife asks him “Don’t you think that saying goodbye to a child would make your death more painful?” And he said, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?”
I pride myself on being able to achieve a sense of awareness that tends to my ability to think of the bigger picture in terms of where my life is going, rather than getting too caught up in problems that won’t matter down the line. Even so, naturally I often find myself getting lost in my daily routines and stresses. I know that it is important to live in now, appreciate each moment, and not get too caught up in the future or the past, but what this book has shown me is that so much of what characterizes a fulfilling life is knowing that what you are doing in the now is going to contribute to an overall meaningful existence.
While Kalanithi was never able to finish the transcript for the book on his own, it paints a vivid picture of his life and the types of inner conflicts that he dealt with from a coming-of-age young adult to a powerful neurosurgeon to a helpless patient during his last years. He battles questions of spirituality, science, character, morality, and philosophy, and the relationship between doctor and patient. I highly recommend that you read this book. I could go on about how great it is, but it does not compare to reading Kalanithi’s words yourself.