‘When Breath Becomes Air’ – Book Review

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
         – Samuel Beckett

Recently, I have got into a bad habit of putting my alarm on two snoozes and then finally putting it off without waking up. It’s all because of my nocturnal habits and the recent fancies with Tia Espresso. I need to change all this. With this over-powering thought, one night I decided to go to bed early so I could get up and become a ‘Five A.M. club member’ promoted by motivational speaker and author Robin Sharma. Well, I was in my bed early but couldn’t get sleep so tossing and turning I lay my hands on the book that my hubby had just finished reading. It was ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi.

Forewords in the books are always meant to raise your interest in the book, but this one by Abraham Verghese, setting the context of Paul’s story and life was so impactful that when it ended with “Let me not stand between you and Paul,” I really could not stop.

The book is written by Paul Kalanithi, 36 years old on the verge of completing a decade worth of training as a neurosurgeon, died of stage IV lung cancer. Confronted with death while being a doctor himself, he has presented his own story and how things can change in life – one day a doctor and next day a terminal patient. He has highlighted the paramount truth of the world and that is, “death”. “It is the only fact about the world, like the distance from the sun to the earth”, he wrote in his book.

The way Paul has written this book, it never feels like he is not in this world but he is directly talking to you, opening up about his life, sharing his experience and the vast knowledge and not to miss his rich literary sense that comes from his innumerable readings.

He gives us the picture of the medical world and even simplifies the medical terms for us readers. He highlights that technical excellence is not enough but what is more important is the human relationship between doctor and the patient. He has presented various accounts of the need to establish human connection and how he would instil the trust in his patients.

He believed that if saving lives is the job of a doctor then guiding the patient or family to understand death or illness – as everyone dies eventually – is also his responsibility. Having lived the life of a doctor, treating and advising patients, he also presents the grim reality of how he faced death both as a physician and a patient.

Paul not just shares his observations in this book but he also gives account of his life events. He ironically mentions that cancer succeeded in saving his marriage at the least. This makes me think that how we fight or develop hatred for one another until something unfortunate happens to them and all those fights become meaningless but their life.

The Prologue by Paul and the Epilogue written by his wife Lucy in the book will burst you into tears. The book is moving and focuses on the reality of life. Death is a fact which is unsettling for us. We don’t want to accept it. Instead we fight, abuse, become greedy or sad. So, if life is unpredictable then why not just spend time being happy and create beautiful memoirs. Just like Paul did by writing this book which I think is his beautiful gift to the world.

As the back cover reads, “rattling, heart-breaking and ultimately beautiful”, it is every bit all of it and more, a must read for everyone.

I still start crying whenever I put myself in his place, not by the things he tells us in the book but the ones he does not say. How he must have felt that when his life was taking off, this happened to him. As he says somewhere:

“My life up until my illness could be understood as the linear sum of my choices. As in most modern narratives, a character’s fate depended on human actions, his and others.”

“But now I lived in a different world, a more ancient one, where human action paled against superhuman forces, a world that was more Greek tragedy than Shakespeare.”

Aah, it kills me all these lines, when I read it and again when I am re-reading it.

As he continues, his doctor tells him “This is not the end.” “Or even the beginning of the end. This is just the end of the beginning”, but he knows it is the “end of the beginning.”

Still he does not make you feel pity for him, he is still the doctor till the end, handling the difficult detail -in this case his own- ever so carefully and making you share his pain like a friend, family.

This is my tribute to Paul.

Beautiful, beautiful book, must read for everyone.

Book Review_Ms. Singh Posts


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