When Breath Becomes Air: A Book Report

[THIS IS NOT REALLY A SPOILER POST BECAUSE YOU KNOW ON PAGE ONE WHO DIES. BUT IT SORT OF IS SO IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED, READ THE BOOK AND COME BACK]

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Ten pages into When Breath Becomes Air, I started texting friends, Have you read this? You have to read this! It is beautiful and thought-provoking and haunting, but one of the most powerful takeaways for me was simply how important it is to tell our stories.

Over the last year I’ve begun reading more creative non-fiction, and I’ve developed a love for the art form. Maybe partly because it feels validating to someone who writes mainly, uh, about herself.

Yes I’ve written about other things, for work I’ve had to write about many things I am not necessarily interested in, but I’ve found that my best, most motivated writing is usually about me or my life. At one point I got into my head the worry that this is narcissistic, and it’s been hard to shake.

I’ve started asking, why do I have this urge to turn my life into an essay? Or a short story or a blog post? Do you think your life is that interesting? A mean little voice asks. I don’t know that I think people need to read it so much as I need to write it. It is how I make sense of the mess, how I flame my creative spark.

As I read When Breath Becomes Air, what struck me most was the author, Paul Kalanithi’s voice. It had this rapid, breathless pace. It felt so focused, and I wondered how he’d had the restraint to only tell the most pertinent details and leave the rest behind. Because he leaves a fair amount of details out. (I think, let’s be honest I read it too quickly and too tired because I couldn’t put it down) His wife and family, while at the heart of the story, are given fairly little air time. I gobbled it up, as many have, and when I got to the “ending,” I came to understand his voice.

I say “ending” because before he can really finish writing the book, his body is consumed by cancer.

And the reason for his writing in the voice he did was because he was actually racing death.

!!!!!

In the Epilogue, his wife says how when she reads the book, she sees a part of Paul, but not all of him. She says we don’t quite get his sense of humor, or his tender disposition. Perhaps that was a choice he made — perhaps he didn’t have time to develop it.

We all inhabit different selves in space and time, she says. And that is just what makes his story so powerful. That only he, at that time, could have written this book, this raw, wondering psalm that asks more questions than it answers. It is the story he had to tell. And I am so glad he chose to tell it.

As the book is coming to a close, Paul writes:

In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer an eighth, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth. Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete. And Truth comes somewhere above all of them, where, as at the end of that day’s Sunday’s reading,

‘the sower and reaper can rejoice together. For here the saying is verified that “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work.’

We need each other’s stories to understand life, to approach truth. None of us can sow or reap everything — we have to take turns. I reaped so much from Paul’s story, but I hope to never sow it. In turn I can write what I have sown, and maybe someone else, or maybe just me, can reap a nugget of insight from it or maybe just a laugh.

This book has validated for me the special relationship between writer and reader, and the importance of telling our stories. I feel newly inspired to get over my laziness or procrastination and put words on a page. Case in point I am writing a non-sponsored book review on a blog I don’t even check the analytics on, but I needed to write it! And maybe someone needed an extra push to read this amazing book.

Like I said, not a sponsored post. But I’ll just help you out and tell you to click here.

 

One thought on “When Breath Becomes Air: A Book Report

  1. Andy says:

    I’m just logging back into my wordpress for the first time in forever and saw this. That book! The original question about how to know how to spend/prioritize your time was so profound and I hated that he didn’t give a definitive answer to it. I wanted him to tell us exactly what to do with time. I didn’t know what to take away from his experience, but I’m so glad you shared your thoughts because like you said just his desire to share his feelings and thoughts is good enough. And I’m sure you don’t need to hear it from me, but I am so glad you keep writing. For you yes, but also because it’s important to me.

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