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[Book Review]  When Breath Becomes Air— Paul Kalanithi

This book was on my reading list for a very long time. I got my hands on it and finished reading it in two days. Even squeezed sleep hours to accommodate for reading the words of a dying man. Paul wrote it while fighting cancer, some of it during chemo sessions. The book is divided into these sections — 

a) Prologue
b) Paul’s pre-cancer life
c) Post-diagnosis chaos
d) Epilogue, written by his wife, Lucy.

Reading this book made me question a lot of life choices. When we search for meaning in what we do, why we exist, we tend to go into the philosophical realm. A lot of people shy away from philosophy, shunning it by calling philosophy a waste of time. Personally, I believe philosophy is a toolkit for better decision making. Read more on finding meaning in this post on melting asphalt.

Paul was a literature major, neurosurgeon, a person of Indian origin, born and brought up in the US. His career choices were exemplary. He chose to be a doctor as he couldn’t find assuring answers in literature to the hard, fundamental questions about life, its meaning. He decided to become a neurosurgeon because more often in the surgical treatment of brain there’s the intersection of life, death, and meaning. For instance, a patient with a non-malignant brain tumor that triggers epileptic fits can choose to either get operated or let the tumor be. The risk of going on the table brings the possibility of messing with the brain which may lead to disability. Would that life be worth living? What are the odds of success? Is it worth the risk? In such circumstances, several other questions crop up, and as a neurosurgeon, Paul got to stay up close to situations asking these trying questions. He has narrated about such trade-offs in the book with much rationale.

And then one day, he found himself tussling with similar questions. Diagnosed with cancer whether he should keep practicing as a resident doctor or spend time with family or read or write. Whether he should become a father or not. All this without knowing how much time he’s left.

As a doctor, he was party to such difficult decisions. But when it came upon himself, he understood how little he knew about death. The very thing he had seen with enough proximity so many times.

Cancer not only limits the time you have, but it also limits your energy, degrades the quality of time you’ve left. One moment you’ve sorted the trajectory of your life, chalked out the way you want, expect it. The next moment, a terminal illness takes control of that trajectory, controlling your life as if it were its puppet. 

The book is heartbreaking, arduous, and revealing. Paul’s old connect with literature is very evident in the way he’s written it. I must say, through this book it was good knowing you, Paul.

4.5/5 Stars

Posted in POV

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