Book Recommendation: When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

Written by a neuroscientist – Dr Paul Kalanithi, documenting his tryst with death, this autobiography is definitely a modern classic. I stumbled upon this title while going through Bill Gates’ book recommendation, the first line of which read – “This book left me in tears”. I was immediately sure that this book wasn’t for an emotionally weak hearted person like me. But when it kept popping up in conversations, google ads, it soon landed in my kindle too.

From the first page, you know that this man was a prodigy, not only in science but in literature as well.  In this fast-paced read, he talks at length about his childhood, his relationship with his family, his wife, but mostly neurosurgery, and his love for the field. Just like the most of us, he goes through a dilemma of choosing a particular stream over the other in college. Initially a literature student at the Stanford University, he realises that he doesn’t quite belong in there despite his love for the subject. Instead, he chooses to get ready for medical school. While his friends choose to specialise in less demanding areas, he chooses neurosurgery – coz according to him – “Putting lifestyle first is how you choose a job, not a calling.” And years later while serving as a successful neurosurgeon, upon diagnosed with cancer, he struggles to make the physician-patient switch, while lamenting over the tasks he could’ve accomplished had he lived the usual term. You simply lament alongside.

Through its pages not only do you meet this incredibly gifted man, but also his wife Lucy, a doctor herself and a resolute force sticking right by his side. They had planned to have kids at the end of his residency, but after knowing his condition, they have Cady, their daughter, who’s born just eight months before Paul’s death. He leaves her a lovely note at the end of the book, followed by his wife’s beautiful but sad Epilogue where she sums up his life and death with profound dignity – “What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy.”

Favourite Quotes:

  • Putting lifestyle first is how you choose a job, not a calling.
  • When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeons only tool.
  • A tureen of tragedy was best allotted by the spoonful.
  • You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.
  • The message to his daughter – “When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

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