When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

“There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.”

5/5 stars.
Hardcover, 229 pages.
Read from July 8, 2021 to July 13, 2021.

It’s not very often that a book can marry literature, science, and philosophy together and it’s even rarer when it’s a memoir. Then again, the author of this book also seemed to be a rare human being. One that was taken from this world far too soon.

Losing someone you love to cancer is an exclusive club that nobody wants to be a part of, in that only those who have known the pain of it can truly relate to it. At the same time, it becomes such a defining and all-consuming part of your life that you can’t help but also be drawn to anything relating to it. This is how this book found my reading list.

The opening foreword by Abraham Verghese gives you your first powerful impression of what Paul was like and draws you in from the first page. Paul Kalanithi was an accomplished neurosurgeon whose first love was writing and reading, a venture that almost had him become a professor instead of a surgeon. He found himself in the medical field due to his own questions of life and death, often brought on by the literature that he read. Initially thinking he’d do psychiatry, Paul fell in love with neurosurgery and became one of the best. When Paul was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, his deep intrigue with life and death took a whole new meaning.

Despite his illness, Paul decided to continue doing what he does best, being a neurosurgeon. Paul gives the details of how he came to medicine and how he grew as a physician, not hiding his faults as he progressed in the field. His diagnosis changed him from a practitioner to a patient and it gave him a wholly different perspective on his patients and the type of care he and the system provided. Paul and his wife decided to try for a child despite his dire situation, a child he was able to see and spend time with for a few brief and magical months. He started with the hope of leaving his daughter something of him in writing this book.

Paul melds his talent and passion for writing with his ideas on science, death, and dying creating this moving and masterful work. I am so thankful he shared his ideas and vulnerabilities with the world as this book has left a lasting impression on me, as it has, no doubt for many others. Paul faced death with an immense appreciation for life and what he had and made the most out of every second, a lesson that he shared through his writing. Actively living and actively dying are two sides of the same coin and the side that you want is one of your choosing.

This book feels incomplete because it is. Paul had so much more to share with the world and with his family but cancer cut his life short. Isn’t that always the way of things, though? Never enough time. While poets have been writing on this topic for more than a century, Paul’s story is a modern telling of the beauty and fleetingness of life.

This book is suitable and recommended for any human but I think especially those going through times of struggle or transition. Paul’s words are raw, comforting, and a gentle reminder of what we have to be grateful for while exploring death and life’s meaning.

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.”

4/5 stars.
Hardcover, 138 pages.
June 9, 2020 to June 11, 2020.

I was gifted a copy of this book from a friend who could passionately recite lines of the poetry composed inside of it. She spoke so eloquently that I was instantly hooked by the words and wanted to read this book for myself.

The author, Kahlil Gibran, was an American-Lebanese poet who is most known in the English-speaking world for this book and has become one of the best-selling poets of all time. Even though many of Gibran’s works were not originally written in English, this one included, his execution and skill lend itself wonderfully into English translation, giving the feeling that you are reading the story as it is meant to be read. The Prophet was published in 1923 and has since had more than 163 different editions in print.

The prophet Almustafa is about to leave the city of Orphalese where he has lived in exile for the last twelve years. Its people are saddened to see him leave and ask him to speak before them before he leaves them. Each chapter is a poetic essay in which he speaks on a variety of topics, from love, religion, prayer, marriage, death, pain, children, and more.

The simplicity, wonder, and beauty of the advice that the prophet gives is one that transcends any religion or belief as it touches the root of human experiences. Each topic touches on something that is uniquely human and are situations and qualities that we can all relate to.  The chapters are accompanied by Gibran’s own artwork bringing to life the words in each chapter. He was a man of many creative talents.

“Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.”

This book, in some ways, is what poetry should be. It’s not complicated, you don’t have to decipher its meaning, and its content is accessible by everyone who wants to read it. Poetry often gets a bad rap for being highfalutin and pretentious making it a genre of books that many people don’t want to read or haven’t enjoyed reading in the past. Gibran had humble beginnings and his work is a testament to his humbleness. Poetry can be resoundingly beautiful, soul-touching, and thought-provoking without being complicated. The Prophet and its popularity is a testament to that.

The Prophet is also the type of book that can be revisited numerous times as its words and lessons never lose their potency and can serve as wonderful reminders in times of difficulty or uncertainty. I particularly enjoyed the sections on love, marriage, children, pain and death and I am sure will serve as helpful reminders when I need them. This is also the type of book that doesn’t need to be read in entirety or in one sitting, as each chapter is unique and can stand on its own. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is apprehensive of poetry or for someone looking for inspiration in everyday life.