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#BookRiffs: When Breath Becomes Air


I don't expect to actually review books here, but I thought I would write a little bit periodically about books that I've read and what I've taken from them. Paul Kalanithi's WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR is the second.

I put out a call for motivational/inspirational nonfiction books on Twitter a little while back, and a few people suggested this book. I picked it up at the bookstore the next time I went to town, and I'm glad I did.

A man I know died recently. Kim was the victim of an aggressive, merciless cancer that claimed him in less than a year.

I didn't know Kim well, but I did know him as a robust, energetic and good-hearted man. He was kind and friendly to me whenever our paths crossed. He was good to my friend Alexis, who he dated. He left behind loving parents, a crew of good friends, and an unborn child.

He was 37.

Mortality is an uncomfortable subject. If you're like me, living in a perpetual state of arrested development, it's easy to pretend like the years don't add up. Often, it's easy to pretend like I'm still in my twenties, like death is an abstraction, like it's light years away.

The author of this book, Paul Kalanithi, died of cancer at age 36. Apart from being a talented writer, he was a brilliant doctor and an inquisitive mind, and it's both tragically ironic and also something of a unique blessing that even before his cancer diagnosis, he had devoted his life to the study of mortality and the human response to sickness and suffering.

The author suffers his illness with courage and unflinching integrity, made all the more remarkable by the fact that he was literally racing death to write this book. It's not often that you get a perspective on dying from a person so qualified both as a doctor and, yes, a dying individual, particularly from a writer as articulate and thoughtful as Kalanithi.

There are platitudes to be had in this book, though they aren't presented as such. Live like you were dying comes to mind. More, this book serves as an example, and a reminder:

You will die. We will all die. There is no arguing with this fact, just as there is no arguing with any serious trauma that befalls you. There is only finding what's important to you, doing what brings you meaning, being with those who love you, for as long as you can.

And there's accepting that the end will come anyway, and facing it with courage. Just as the author does.

Just as Kim did.