‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi

Dr Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon with stage IV lung cancer. His book ‘When Breath
Becomes Air’ is a powerful and gripping memoir recounting his thoughts and the events in the last years of his life.

Within the book, I found Dr Kalanithi’s style of writing thought provoking, philosophical and full of raw emotion. As an extraordinary writer, he expressed his feelings in words that the reader can both understand and feel touched by.

As he battled with lung cancer, his pursuit to find the answer to his question “What makes human life more meaningful?” continued. His journey from an English Literature graduate to doctor and then patient, gave him a range of perspectives. As the art student he saw human life through a philosophical lens, as a doctor he saw human life through the eyes of a scientist but then as the patient he saw life as it was. All of these outlooks enabled him to piece together an answer. I found the following quote really interesting and somewhat a perfect answer to his question:

“Yet the paradox is that scientific methodology is the product of human hands and thus cannot reach some permanent truth. We build scientific theories to organize and manipulate the world, to reduce phenomena into manageable units. Science is based on reproducibility and manufactured objectivity. As strong as
that makes its ability to generate claims about matter and energy, it also makes scientific knowledge inapplicable to the existential, visceral nature of human life, which is unique and subjective and unpredictable. Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.”

The quote shows an appreciation for science and all that it has done to extend and better human life but it does not forget that at the end of the day it is the being which gives it meaning.

The beauty of a field like medicine is that these two concepts work hand in hand in everyday practice. Therefore, a good doctor would work to treat both the illness and the patient

Overall, it is an eloquently written book. Written from such a personal point of view, Dr Kalanithi has provided the world with a memoir which really sheds light upon what it is like to battle with one of the most difficult diseases today.

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