Unraveling mortality with a personal lens

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By: McKenna Graham, Associate Arts & Life Editor

Title: When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
Genre: Memoir
Rating: Five stars

I know that a lot of people our age have an indomitable passion for medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy and Scrubs, but if you want a look at the life behind those who make a living out of medicine and mortality, I have just the book for you.

This book isn’t particularly complex or dramatic; it isn’t thrilling or drastic; it’s simply the story of a man who dedicated his life to death – understanding it through literature and overcoming it through medicine – and then stood toe-to-toe with it. Kalanithi’s work will be read by medical students and casual readers alike for years to come.

Paul Kalanithi was 36 when he was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic lung cancer. He was in his last year of residency as a neurosurgeon and was beginning to consider having kids with his wife. This book chronicles his journey, first as a teenager reading all he can about life and death, and then later as a medical student, doing all he can to stop life from becoming death.

As previously stated, this is not a story for someone who wants a light, fun, adventurous thrill-ride. This is a story for someone who wants to read something that feels like it really matters – this is not young adult or sci-fi, it’s not thriller or fantasy, it’s real life, cut open and raw and waiting for you to look.

You’ll think about death in a totally different way, not just because the story ends with it but because Kalanithi gets as close to peering into the abyss and reporting back as you can get. After reading about mortality and the human condition for the first 20 or so years of his life, he went on to practice medicine as a surgeon, using precision tools to preserve such things.

I personally have never read a book so simple and yet intellectual. Kalanithi makes you think without realizing it; because it’s so comprehensible, even the things that sound like they come from a medical textbook are easy to understand. Things do get metaphysical and philosophical, but Kalanithi puts concepts within reach of his reader, never assumes that they’re an expert with literature or medicine, and is ever patient as a guide down the road he’s already traveled.

This book was pretty much written within the last year of his life; in the afterword, his wife describes him curled up in his armchair in the living room, blankets wrapped around him, writing away, but it doesn’t feel rushed or unfinished. His prose is polished and meditative; it’s smooth and soothing for a book that sounds so morbid, but perhaps that’s partly his intention: to de-mystify death, to normalize it for us as it was normalized for him.

This is my last review of the year, and it’s definitely a good one to end on. This book makes you think, makes you feel and makes you talk, three things that any really good book will do. Yet it is effortless, never forced, always soft and well-spoken, like a physician guiding you through his thought process on what to him is a simple and quick procedure.

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