I thought that I had reviewed Kate Gross’s Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Magnificent Life) but it seems that I haven’t. I know I haven’t written about Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh, because I wrote about that in a term paper rather than on the blog. I’m not sure if it’s my age (!) or whether closeness to death just makes a good story, but I love how these two books show you life right on the edge. Kate Gross describes her life and end of life after diagnosis with cancer at 34. Henry Marsh writes as a neurosurgeon, looking back on a long career dealing with people with life threatening brain disease and injury.
Somewhere in between Late Fragments and Do No Harm, lies the new release, When Breath Becomes Air. It is written by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon and writer. Kalanithi had degrees in English literature, human biology, history and philosophy of science, and Medicine, and he brings all that knowledge to bear in his writing, sharpened by a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer in his thirties.
The book takes you from when Paul started to suspect cancer, to the diagnosis, then right back to his time growing up in Arizona, his studies at different universities, a beautiful description of what made him. The second part of the book returns us to his last two years, his treatment, improvements, relapses, and his struggles to work out what it meant for his sense of self, his relationships, his career. None of it is maudlin: instead Paul writes with the clarity that I think we would all like to achieve given the same situation. The book is not long: I read it on a return train journey in less than three hours. Paul’s writings were cut short by the progression of his illness, and the book is completed with an epilogue by his wife Lucy. Nonetheless, it is a book I would read again, and again. It seems that, as with Late Fragments, Kalanithi has discovered something truly special. In his book he somehow transfers to the reader a little of the change in the way that you value life when the date of your death is suddenly brought near.
Listen to Paul and watch the video, A Strange Relativity: Altered Time for Surgeon-Turned-Patient, that he made before his death. It is beautiful, a thoughtful meditation on what time meant for him as he watched his baby daughter grow up while his own time was running out.
When Breath Becomes Air costs around £9 at time of writing.
Disclaimer: I was sent this book to review