Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Facing Mortality Means Understanding What Has Made Life Worth Living

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Facing Mortality Means Understanding What Has Made Life Worth Living

Article excerpt

Byline: KATIE LAW

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi (The Bodley Head, PS12.99) AT THE age of 36, a Stanford neurosurgeon called Paul Kalanithi discovered he had inoperable cancer. "I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumours, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated." In March 2015, less than two years later, he died, leaving his fellow-doctor wife and eight-monthold daughter.

This account of his life and dying has already had rave reviews in the US and deserves the same here. Cancer memoirs John Diamond's, Ruth Picardie's, Tom Lubbock's and Oliver Sacks's being among the better ones may be a dime a dozen but they're only as good as their authors, and Kalanithi proves to be exceptional.

The son of immigrant Indians, he grew up in Arizona, studied English literature and human biology at Stanford, philosophy at Cambridge and went to medical school at Yale. In spite of winning prizes he claims he was "less driven by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain."

For all his admiration of literature the title of the book is paraphrased from a sonnet by Jacobean poet Baron Fulke Greville Kalanithi chose neurosurgery for its insights into how "biology, literature and philosophy intersect". Working as a resident surgeon, he witnessed countless injuries and describes performing many operations, the mistakes and failures, as well as the successes, with death never far away. "I had started in this career, in part to pursue death: to grasp it, uncloak it, and see it eye to eye, unblinking." He worried about his failure to empathise with his patients and their families. …

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