A number of colleagues recommended When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi to me, and when I saw it online for a cheap price, I jumped on it. Coincidentally, I happened to be teaching the Pulitzer-Prize winning play W;t, by Margaret Edson when I read this, and I discovered the two were excellent companion pieces–one looks at how becoming a doctor can dehumanize you, and one looks at how becoming a patient can dehumanize you.
This memoir tells the story of a deeply literate man who becomes a doctor. I enjoyed the book for many reasons, one was how he wove his love of literature and curiosity about human nature and how the brain works into the story of his life. Early in the novel, he writes how as a teenager, he discovered books: “Books became my closest confidants, finely ground lenses providing new views of the world.”
The writing absolutely sang, and I found myself underlining many parts of the book not just for the meaningful content, but for the style in which they were written:
- “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
- “There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.”
- “Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.”
- “The physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.”
- “Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end. The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.”