Between the Lines Book Club: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

between the lines book club logoOur book club pick for February is When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi. This book is a memoir by Dr. Kalanithi. Dr. Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. After his diagnosis, his wife became pregnant and he wrote this book in large part so that his daughter, who would probably not remember him, would be able to get to know him.

In an essay for the New York Times, Kalanithi wrote about how difficult it was to decide how to make choices when he didn’t know how much longer he had to live:

In a way, though, the certainty of death was easier than this uncertain life. Didn’t those in purgatory prefer to go to hell, and just be done with it? Was I supposed to be making funeral arrangements? Devoting myself to my wife, my parents, my brothers, my friends, my adorable niece? Writing the book I had always wanted to write? Or was I supposed to go back to negotiating my multiyear job offers?

The path forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d just spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d have a plan (write that book). Give me 10 years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The pedestrian truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day? My oncologist would say only: “I can’t tell you a time. You’ve got to find what matters most to you.”

Reading this book gives us an opportunity to reflect on what matters most to us. Ultimately Kalanithi found hope in the words of Samuel Beckett:

I remember the moment when my overwhelming uneasiness yielded. Seven words from Samuel Beckett, a writer I’ve not even read that well, learned long ago as an undergraduate, began to repeat in my head, and the seemingly impassable sea of uncertainty parted: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” I took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” And then, at some point, I was through.

We will be discussing the book at Arden Dimick Library on Feb 23, 2019 a 10:30AM. You can also leave comments here!

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