2021 books

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For some time now, I have been approaching questions about how I feel about a certain topic by ‘extremizing’ - coming up with an example or analogy that makes the difference between the two sides as clear as possible, which makes decision-making easier. But what if life itself is ‘extremized’ in this way? This book is a fascinating and emotional look at what that might be like. It sells every emotion that it is going for. When the author felt hope at a certain point of his journey, I felt hope. When he felt despair, I felt that. When he wanted to fight, I wanted him to fight too. When he wanted to tell a joke, even in the middle of paragraphs I was reading with quivering lips, I laughed. That’s how much control the author had on the reader, and this is throughout every single page of this wonderful book.

Apart from the beautifully directed emotional weight of the narrative, the prose itself is a joy to behold. Barely a line is wasted (which makes sense, given something I got to know in the epilogue). There’s setup and payoff at the sentence level and the story level. There’s a rhythm in the paragraphs that made me want to go over them again and again. There are literary and scientific metaphors sprinkled throughout (as the foreword notes, the author might as well have been an English professor), especially one about subjects and objects in a sentence, that I really liked.

This is going to a book that I will return to many times in the future.

On a more personal note - I used to read a lot in high school, before life intervened and my reading habit declined drastically. I have been attempting to get it back. But that has been hard going back to long-form prose from essays and blogs on the internet. I wanted to sink into an author’s world and go on journeys with them, but the bus always seemed to leave me behind. This book gave me what I wanted. I think I understand now what I had been missing - I had been reading books on topics I am interested in, on books that introduced ideas that hooked me. Without naming names, this book made me realize that the prose in these books isn’t inviting enough. Sometimes they feel like a bunch of essays put side-by-side, developing an idea at a time and then moving on to something else, over and over again. Educational, maybe. Makes me think, maybe. Enjoyable? Probably not so much. A book has to be different. It has to tell a story over a longer duration, and I think this book makes for a very stark contrast (Don’t get me wrong, ‘idea books’ like those have a place. But reading them is like drinking from a firehose; they need to be read slowly, more like a textbook). Has it opened the floodgates and unleashed a flow of fresh water on my barren reading landscape? Only time will tell (‘It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future’).

Craziest new thing I learned

The existence of a word ‘burke’, defined by the OED as ‘to kill secretly by suffocating or strangulation, or for the purpose of selling the victim’s body for dissection’

Favourite lines (spoiler alert!)

That same brain made things like labor and delivery units, cardiotocometers, epidurals and emergency C-sections both possible and necessary.

It occurred to me that my relationship with statistics changed as soon as I became one.

Could we divide the curve into existential sections, from “defeated” to “pessimistic” to “realistic” to “hopeful” to “delusional”?

“If we’re the best at this, that means it doesn’t get better than this.”

Was this a victory or a defeat?

Even in having children in this new life, death played its part.

The realm of metaphysics remains the province of revelation. […] The prototypical atheist, then, is Graham Greene’s commandant from The Power and the Glory, whose atheism comes from a revelation of the absence of God.

“The good news is that I have already outlived two Brontës, Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.”

[…] but maybe the basic message of original sin isn’t “Feel guilty all the time.” Maybe it is more along these lines: “We all have a notion of what it means to be good, and we can’t live up to it all the time.”