Sunday, August 13, 2017

Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Author: Paul Kalanithi
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 228
Format: Paperback
Published: January, 2017
Price: Rp160.000 (Periplus)
Rating: 3 / 5 stars

Date started: August 7, 2017 - Date finished: August 13, 2017

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 making a living treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air, which features a Foreword by Dr. Abraham Verghese and an Epilogue by Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy, chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a na├»ve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a young neurosurgeon at Stanford, guiding patients toward a deeper understanding of death and illness, and finally into a patient and a new father to a baby girl, 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 mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.
When Breath Becomes Air is Paul Kalanithi's debut book, which unfortunately is also his last book. Paul was a neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer just when he was working his way up to a stellar career in neurosurgery. It is a memoir about living life and facing death, about grasping the meaning of life and death. This memoir is divided up into two parts. The first part is about Kalanithi's life before diagnosed of cancer and the second part is about his life after he was diagnosed of cancer.

First part of this book revolves around Kalanithi's upbringing, how he chose neurosurgery as his specialty, his education, how his love of literature and science blossomed and many other topics. The second part is about him being diagnosed with cancer just as he was planning about how his career would be like, his goals both in life and career. It is also about understanding the meaning of life in the face of death.
I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live. 
First of all let me say that I really wanted to love this book. I mean this book has been on my radar since forever because of people's glowing reviews about it. One day, I was cruising a bookstore and then I found this book at a reasonable price (for a non-fiction book) so I took it to the register and paid for it thinking that it'll be another addition to my favorites shelf, but boy was I disappointed that it isn't.

I would also like to say that by not giving this book 5 stars doesn't mean that this was a bad book. This is actually one of the most beautifully written book I've ever read in my life. I gave this book a rating of 3 stars because of how I felt about it, which describes the feeling perfectly with the word "like" since I just "liked" this book. I sort of didn't connect with this book at all, in my head I imagined when reading this book it'd feel like hearing the musings of a man living life surrounded by life and death and now is facing death himself. In fact, I put it off a few times and the urge of finishing this book only comes because I paid full price for it I didn't want my money to go to waste.
Death comes for all of us. For us, for our patients: it is our fate as living, breathing, metabolizing organisms. Most lives are lived with passivity toward death – it's something that happens to you and those around you. But Jeff and I had trained for years to actively engage with death, to grapple with it, like Jacob with the angel, and, in so doing, to confront the meaning of a life. We had assumed an onerous yoke, that of mortal responsibility. Our patients' lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are perfect, the world isn't. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can't ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.
Okay, that last paragraph probably sounded a little harsh but it's true. Connecting to a book is a really big deal to me, it influences my rating of a book big time. Anyway, the feeling of disconnect was my only problem with this book. The good parts of this can be summed up by the words "intelligent", "insightful" and "beautifully written". The second you start reading deeper into this book, you will get the feeling of how intelligent this man is and how his writing was really, really beautiful. The prose was beautiful and at times lyrical, I can definitely see that this was because of his deep love for literature and reading a lot of great literature works. There were times where I wanted to underline a lot of passages because they're amazing but I didn't because I don't think I'm going to be keeping my copy of this book. Instead I just took pictures of them to remember them.

My favorite part of this book, and I think a lot of people will agree to it as well is the Epilogue by Kalanithi's wife, Lucy. The epilogue was heart wrenching, you can sense how much she loves Kalanithi (yes, in present tense). The epilogue was as you might've guessed, Lucy's perspective in dealing with Kalanithi's illness. It explained among other things how this book is actually unfinished and how Kalanithi wanted to publish this book posthumously.
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.
I expected to feel only empty and heartbroken after Paul died. It never occurred to me that you could love someone the same way after he was gone, that I would continue to feel such love and gratitude alongside the terrible sorrow, the grief so heavy that at times I shiver and moan under the weight of it.
Besides about life and death, the meaning of it. I also liked reading about Paul and Lucy's marriage. How I can safely say that when someone asks me an example of a real life love story I'd say Paul and Lucy's love for each other as an example. I'd like to end this book with a note that even though I didn't connect to this book I can appreciate what a great book this is and everyone should read this because you'll learn a lot from Paul.

That's all for now!

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