As a young man, Paul Kalanithi was fascinated with questions of philosophy – the meaning of human life and death. He was the perfect product of his parents – his father an absent, over-worked doctor and his mother dedicated and intent on educating her sons in the classics. At first, his fascination with philosophical questions led him to major in English Literature at Stanford. Through literature he studied and gained insight into the wisdom of the human mind. His studies led him to a further fascination with human consciousness and the brain. He took more science courses and ended up with dual degrees in English literature and biology. Although he vowed he never wanted to be like his absent father and the last thing he wanted to become was a doctor, he became increasingly convinced that the issues of morality and philosophy in which he was so interested could only be truly understood by confronting life and death through a medical practice. He applied to medical school, and while waiting to enter, he went to the University of Cambridge, where he earned a master’s degree in the History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine before attending Yale Medical School. After medical school, he returned to Stanford for his residency in neurosurgery.
He came to believe, he writes, that his simultaneous quests for meaning in life and for the relationship between the mind and the brain resulted in a “Conclusion” (read: wisdom, and/or insight), if he examined both the wisdom of the mind (as manifest in literature) and the function of the brain (as manifest in its anatomy and relationship with the rest of the physical body). He also writes about what might be described as a secondary quest: to examine and improve the general relationship between doctors and patients, exploring ways to make each interact more as humans with each other, than as functional components. That relationship, his narrative suggests, could take into account that there is more to both than just a body and /or knowledge: there is also mind, spirit, and innate wisdom.
The irony of his quest is that in a flash his view transformed from an epistemological objective study to an ontological subjective one. All the sudden, with a diagnosis of lung cancer, he was on the court with the meaning of his own life and death. The terminal diagnosis forced him to grapple with his own priorities and values.
When Paul sent his best friend an email in May 2013 revealing that he had terminal cancer, he wrote: “The good news is that I’ve already outlived two Brontës, Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.” It was a humorous way of dealing with the unthinkable, but also an indication of Dr. Kalanithi’s tremendous ambition. He had led a fascinating life and was not about to leave it unchronicled. The result is this incredible, unforgettable book.
The introduction to the memoir was written by Abraham Verghese, a professor at Stanford Medical School and the author of numerous best-selling books, including the novel Cutting for Stone (2009).
Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, July 5. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Tuesday, July 5 for a discussion of When Breath Becomes Air at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.