I recently took part in a Book Exchange. A friend of mine posted a status asking if anyone wanted to take part in a gift exchange. I had often seen posts like this before. In the past, I’ve never answered the call because I felt uncomfortable giving my address out to total strangers. This time, I decided, I was just going to jump in. My friend sent me a long message immediately after I replied that asked you to send your favourite book to Person A; you would make a similar post on your wall and those who responded would send a book to Person B (the person who’s post I had seen and to which I had responded). One swapped addresses as the chain of connections grew.
At first, I was a little overwhelmed. I was about to say, oh, maybe this isn’t for me. But, I embraced it. I embraced that I would be asking my friends to send my friend a book and that their friends would be sending me a book. I was to send a book to the person who caught her in this web of gift-giving, and those who responded to me would send my friend a book. I kind of liked that this whole experiment was at least once-removed. It felt like a connection wherein you shared part of yourself to someone you did not necessarily know. I didn’t even think about the books I would get, I just thought about the book I wanted to give and the person who would receive my book.
Since money is tight and our government insists that young people just need to get used to precarious employment, I told the friends who responded to my post that it was perfectly okay to send a used book or to buy from cheaper online shops, an advantage being that one can ship directly to their person. I know that we should be supporting independent shops, but there just aren’t any around me. I suppose the ideal situation would be to send a book with a care package and a small gift, but that wasn’t in my budget and I didn’t want to ask anyone to spend beyond what they were able. The only downside of this method is that the person who receives the book doesn’t know who sent the book. I’ve decided to make a post for every book I receive and extend my most heartfelt thanks and bow in humility to those who sent the precious gift of a book to me.
Yesterday, I received a book from the book exchange. At first, I was trying to remember what books I had purchased. I was awaiting some Roald Dahl books and Black and British, and when I opened the bubbly envelope, out popped When Breath Becomes Air. Afterwards, I realized this wasn’t a book I’d purchased because of the name on the label, it had my nickname. I was a bit shocked. I knew that everyone was super hyped about this book; I was not. Two humans in my life had told me about Paul Kalanithi, one before Kalanithi’s death and one who had fallen in love with this book.
I really wasn’t convinced. He was sold to me as someone who had crossed the invisible but very tangible boundary between the arts and sciences. It seemed ludicrous to me. In my experience, science has heralded itself as the worthy occupation, and arts are usually sidelined as a luxury. It felt that science was a career, but literature, art, history, economics (not commerce), philosophy, etc., those things are considered to be hobbies. I’m wary of this crack in the earth, this line in the land, this unfathomable fissure. I never used to feel that divide so strongly when I was younger, I had studied physics and maths in secondary school, and I loved reading and history. I, myself, debated between studying engineering and history. My dad’s friends, engineers that had lived through Nortel Networks, told me to do history. So, I did.
As I studied, the prejudices against the arts from the sciences ruffled my feathers. It was like constantly going against the grain, and even though I was moving through molasses, people believed that work was somehow meaningless in the greater scheme. I had many existential crises in the library: what was the meaning of anything? History and revisionists and philosophies, oh my! So, I let those experiences inform my opinion on this book, and I decided against reading it. I was wrong to have those prejudices.
Certainly, Kalanithi understands his own prejudices, the arrogances and ego that come with medicine or any career, really, and he conscientiously works against them. He notices it, and he remarks that it doesn’t feel right. Next time, we do better. I think that is one of the most refreshing aspects of this book; he recognizes that we are not always going to have the answers or be the same person day after day. Each day we have to struggle with the good and bad things that inform our past actions, we must be held accountable, and we must strive to shift our experience beyond what we know to be true.
Although Kalanithi doesn’t explicitly state: BE EMPATHETIC, his entire memoir is an ode to empathy and understanding. It does not bridge the gulfs created by class, race, and gender, but it does remind us that privileges may make us heedless to how others think and feel. We might become solipsistic, the sole ego that denies souls to others.
The book is chockfull of references and allusions to erudite and esoteric literary works, and, by applying texts that might seem elusive, dusty tomes directly to his professional and personal experiences, Kalanithi encourages us to think of them as relevant to our own lives. Things that seem elitist are within our grasp; he evidences this by the fact that his mother’s revolutionizing force in the previously somewhat bereft local education system gave opportunities to all students.
Indeed, I’m still figuring out how education and elitism go hand-in-hand, particularly when so many young people are educated but lack the hoards of moveable property that accompany the elite. Moreover, I know reading classics of western literature is laden full of privilege and historical prejudices, and, surely, our sense of their beauty is tied to the colonialism that accompanied(s) them. And yet, words, literature, and thoughts are profound and full of meaning. Canonical western literature is not the be-all and end-all. There are so many voices to whom we should listen. We must actively make social and public spaces for those voices.
We must also not forget that Kalanithi had an extraordinary education, Stanford and Cambridge. I cannot ignore this in my review because it would deny the fact that many persons will not and do not have access to these kinds of experiences. I would also like to make note that the book does contain some privileging of able bodies and able minds. The book, at times, seems to preclude a world inclusive of neurodivergence, but that these are problems to be solved. I am not well-informed enough in this area to speak to it fully.
Kalanithi’s bridge between Literature and Neuro-science and -surgery echoes his investigation of the mind/body nexus, a philosophical problem as old as time. We accept that language gives us the tools of expression, meaning, feeling, intelligence. ‘Man’ has believed that what made him man was language. (Animals, meanwhile, have argued that it was the red-flower.) And then there is the brain that controls the lot. If we want to understand how we think and what we think, do we engage in philosophy or neuroscience? If parts of the brain that become damaged or put under the pressure of a tumour influence how we behave and act, then what does that mean about what it means to about selfhood? Kalanithi doesn’t give us a straight-forward answer; rather, he engages in a well-thought discourse that attempts to meaningfully untangle the seemingly unsolvable. Unsolvable things such as life, death, mortality, suffering, the liminal experience of the patient who may or may not return from the cusp of death, and the place of those who remain after death.
To me, and I think most people will agree, it is the abridged and purpose-driven autobiographical narrative that a parent would hope to leave their child, especially if the parent will die before the child can ask the parent questions about their life.
Finally, I’d like to finish by quoting one of my best friend’s favourite lines: ‘You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving’. A life in motion, a life that moves forward, learning from others, ourselves, and how to engage with people as people and not as problems or a ticking clock.
Heaps of Love,
[Edit: see below]
P.S. In my desire to publish this before I had to take my dog out, I forgot to emphasize a few things. The main takeaway that I want people to have from this book is the importance of reading and the act of reading as a tool to build empathy. For all of its flaws, children that grew up reading the Harry Potter series have been shown to be more empathetic. Because so many young people have this shared experience, they are also able to connect through it. Likewise, we may not agree on which religion or why, we might agree that Hermione’s activities through SPEW are indicative of white feminism. We were given a language to discuss child abuse and the loneliness that teens and young adults feel alongside the loneliness and isolation of adults (re: Sirius). Literature is important. People who study literature are important. Their brains work in wonderful and often uncelebrated ways.
In addition to noting the importance of literature, I did make the point about the prevalence of western literature throughout the text. When I was studying, I was co-Chair of an off-shoot of a charity that builds local-language libraries, supports local-language publishing, and gives money for girls to go to school. When I was part of this charity, it was always important to me that the books that were placed in the libraries and the books that were published were not western exports. Those books are usually readily available, but it was important that money was given to regional and local authors. It is never about exporting the western canon elsewhere; it is about recognizing that we need to support local publishing. This is why writing, and empathy, and developing our individual and shared vocabularies through reading, writing, and supporting authors is important.
Look at the ways in which my own world was broadened by this book. Those are the things that are important.