Earlier this year, my mom was badgering me about reading When Breath Becomes Air and recommending books to me is something that my mom almost never does. I’ve been meaning to read When Breath Becomes Air since I read Paul Kalanithi’s article for Stanford Med, which I found out about while reading Cup of Jo (Joanna Goddard was his sister-in-law). Once I ordered a copy and read the first couple of pages, I knew that this is a book that I was going to flip through over and over again. Although at the time I wasn’t blogging, I did what most book bloggers do when they find an absolutely amazing book: tell everyone they know about it. I sent Kalanithi’s articles to people in my lab, friends, professors, and basically anyone who’d talk to me in an effort to whet their appetites for the book.
Since the book’s place on the NYT Bestseller List and positive reviews say enough about how wonderful the book is, I’ll be doing a discussion instead with my close friend Karen about what the book meant to us. I met Karen in biology lab our freshman year and I’ve always admired her ability to achieve goals, whether it was academically or career wise (congrats on the latest science manuscript!).
Jessica: One of the reasons why I love When Breath Becomes Air is the intensity of it. Readers are intensely aware that Kalanithi is dying yet they can’t help but admire his dedication to everything that he did, whether it was his residency, the way he lived his life or the way he faced his prognosis head on.
Karen: I could not put this book down when I first started (a great way to procrastinate while writing med school apps)! I loved how Kalanithi delivered his story, inviting readers into his mind and allowing us to connect with him on an intimate, emotional level.
J: I know we talked about this earlier in the summer when you said that the line, “You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving,” struck a nerve with you. I think that line is so true and also indicative of how Kalanithi was a part of two worlds– the scientific and literary. Throughout the book, he weaves both the scientific and literary so seamlessly together. I aspire to reach that. I suppose in a sense, that’s what I’m striving towards.
K: For me, I think this particular line resonated with me because I have set high expectations for myself for as long as I can remember. As a premed student, I have found it difficult to not get wrapped up in achieving perfect grades and brushing up on my resume, often sacrificing time spent with friends and family instead. Over the past year though, I have come to accept what Kalanithi so eloquently phrases: no one can be perfect; we can only strive to do our best at whatever we do and make the best out of whatever curveballs life decides to throw at us. My decision to take a gap year really helped me to take a step back from the stressful premed life and re-evaluate what is important to me. I hope to continue living my life with this philosophy in mind!
J: What I liked about When Breath Becomes Air is how there was an epilogue by Lucy Kalanithi (Paul’s widow). It really completes the book and I loved how she answered the reader’s questions about what happened to Paul and how she was doing after Paul’s death, contextualizing his last moments. I was watching the 2017 commencement speech that she gave at UC Irvine’s Medical School, a speech that’s worth watching, and loved the Hemingway quote from A Farewell of Arms that she used when talking about the medical profession, “The world breaks everyone and afterward, many are strong at the broken places”. I think that’s so apt. I know that the journey to becoming a physician seems like obstacles after obstacles, whether it’s the first organic chemistry class, the 18-month application cycle, boards, rotations or residency.
K: I agree with your sentiment about the epilogue. Reading about Lucy’s thoughts and feelings definitely adds another dimension to the story. I think the epilogue provides readers not only closure to Paul’s story, but also valuable insight from Lucy’s own perspective about what it is like going through the ordeal of taking care of a loved one who is terminally ill. The quotation you bring up is certainly relevant to both Paul and Lucy’s story as well as my own. I think in the Kalanithis’ case, the experience of dealing with terminal illness as patient and caretaker “broke” them in terms of plans they had for their futures, but also strengthened their relationship with each other. As you mention, the premed journey also represents this quote well. All premeds face bumps in the road to becoming a physician, but we learn from each instance, pick ourselves back up, and continue our ways down the path wherever it may lead us, becoming stronger in the process.
J: For me, part of my initial interest in Kalanithi was that he was Indian-American and his background in literature as well as science. As long-time readers know, I’m always on the lookout for Asian American writers. However, Kalanithi’s work transcends labels such as “Asian-American” and “neurosurgeon-writer” to captivate a greater audience. I love that. Often times, Asian-American writers are pigeon-holed as “that Asian writer” instead of being known for their work.
K: Interestingly, I do not remember thinking about Kalanithi’s race and ethnicity while reading his book. You do bring up a good point, however. I think it is great that his story and the messages he wished to convey through his book can be appreciated by everyone regardless of racial or even professional identity. In fact, I would recommend it to anyone interested in better understanding what it means to embrace your own mortality, find your sense of purpose and meaning in life, and pursue your passions!
Have you read anything lately that made a lasting impact on you?