Diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, Paul Kalanithi—a remarkably skilled young doctor—is forced to put the following question under the microscope in When Breath Becomes Air: "What makes a life worth living?"
Having graduated from Stanford university with a Master's in English before becoming a neurosurgeon, Kalanithi mindfully accepts that he must trade in his scalpel for a pen once he is given his inauspicious prognosis. His writing, which he planned to do after retirement, can't wait.
Paul poignantly presages at one point that "words have a longevity I do not." This is woefully illustrated when Lucy, Paul's recent widow, must write the book's epilogue (enter handkerchief here). To honour this immortal and talented writer, here are just a few sentences that I especially cherished. I hope they will give you pause, too:
- She was a harbinger of the sub rosa, the new world awaiting me in just a few weeks.
- One afternoon, I woke from my nap, looked up, and saw vultures circling, mistaking me for carrion.
- You could not help but feel your specklike existence against the immensity of the mountain, the earth, the universe, and yet still feel your own two feet on the talus, reaffirming your presence amid the grandeur.
- ...broke into Memorial Church at midnight to lie on our backs and listen to our voices echo in the apse; and so on.
- Everything teeters between pathos and bathos: here you are, violating society's most fundamental taboos, and yet formaldehyde is a powerful appetite stimulant, so you also crave a burrito.
- Prosopagnosia is a neurological disorder wherein one loses the ability to see faces.
- Burke, which the OED defines as "to kill secretly by suffocation or strangulation, or for the purpose of selling the victim's body for dissection."
- I was compelled by neurosurgery, with its unforgiving call to perfection; like the ancient Greek concept arete...
- The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt.
- The tumor had interrupted his speech circuitry, so he could speak only in streams of numbers, but he still had prosody, he could still emote: smile, scowl, sigh.
- You can't ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.
- I stroked Paul's hair, whispering, "You're a brave Paladin"—my nickname for him...