What Makes A Life Worth Living? [A Review]

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

paul kalanithi - when breath becomes air

   [Image courtesy of bookdepository.com]

This is another book that you shouldn’t read in public, especially the second half of the memoir. Even now, I’m struggling to find the words that will describe what I’m feeling.

Maybe it’s got to do with the fact that I’m soon reaching my fourth decade in life, or maybe it’s because I now have a child, or maybe it’s due to my observation of how much my parents have aged in recent years. I find myself thinking about mortality and trying to find meaning in life more often these days. And the book has given me even more food for thought on this.

It probably helped that the writer was a neurosurgeon, a patient and a keen writer at the same time, which made the memoir all the more powerful. Plus, I had just finished reading Me Before You, and thoughts about the morality of euthanasia are still fresh in my mind.

During a casual lunch the other day, I asked my colleagues whether it would be worse to continue to have a sharp mind while one’s body fails by the day, or to have a failing mind with a healthy body. I didn’t get an answer, and I think it’s because both are equally too horrifying to imagine.

What makes a life worth living? I will be thinking about this for a while.

VERDICT: If you’re going through a rough patch in life, this book will probably help to shift your perspectives, hopefully in a good way. As Paul Kalanithi quoted a few times in the book, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

For those who want to know more about the book, here’s an overview from bookdepository.com:

For readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, a profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir by a young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis who attempts to answer the question “What makes a life worth living?” At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. “When Breath Becomes Air” chronicles Kalanithi s transformation from a naive medical student possessed, as he wrote, by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality. What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.


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