20 April, 2016

When breath becomes air by Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi was a vibrant young neurosurgeon, who died in 2015 from cancer. Writing this courageous book helped him cope as he battled his illness and continued his lifelong search for meaning, until he died last year.

Kalanithi's parents eloped to America from India, and eventually settled into small-town Arizona. His parents were passionate about education and the boys were encouraged to read good literature which created a lifelong passion for Kalanithi. At university, he pondered the link between literature and the brain which enables it, and he explains how this interest led him into the field of neuroscience.

The story begins with Kalanithi and his wife, also a doctor, discussing his CT scan. Then he describes a little of his childhood and his path to neurosurgery. The surgical cases he includes provide an eye-opening snapshot of a neurosurgeon's experiences.

As a man in his mid-30s, Kalanithi, along with his family and friends, was forced to face up to his devastating diagnosis and to work out how they would handle it. There is no bitterness, and no holding back in his words. To help himself with the struggle, he borrowed Samuel Beckett's phrase, "I can't go on, I'll go on".

Throughout the book, he challenges himself and the reader - at what cost should we intervene medically - when is enough, enough? He never stops trying to define a 'meaningful life".

This book may force you think about death - it seems that is what Kalanithi wanted.

The epilogue is written by his wife, Lucy. It is quite beautiful.

Title:When breath becomes air
Author: Paul Kalanithi

Recommended by Judy W, Orewa Library

Judy W may appear to work as a library assistant, but in her own mind she is a top criminal defence lawyer and animal rights activist.

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