Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon diagnosed with lung cancer just as he was beginning a promising career after years of rigorous training . His memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, is an account of his life as it transitioned from young surgeon to dying husband.
The book sat untouched for a couple of weeks after I got it. I didn’t even open it, unusual for me as I usually read the forward the day I get a book, even if I don’t get to it for a while (one day Infinite Jest, one day). I’ve been in a great mood lately and I thought the story would be a major downer, so I shelved it and cranked through another Harry Potter novel and a few worthless marketing books.
When Breath Becomes Air is a good book, but it’s uneven in places, likely due to the rapidity of his decline. I wish he had lived longer and I wish there was some way to ask him about choices he made in the writing. For instance, he frequently refers to a book I mentioned a few blog posts ago called Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne. This is a book firmly cemented in the Western classics cannon, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about it or even mention it. He uses the book as an example of great writing about faith and life and death, but it’s almost impenetrable (at least to me). His writing has clarity and doesn’t display any filigree. The language is efficient, as you might imagine a surgeon would write.
The last book I read written by someone who knew they were on the way out was a collection of the last essays of Christopher Hitchens. His account of cancer treatment’s dreariness and the bureaucracy of putting things in place before you exit is about as good a reflection on mortality as you’re going to get. Hitchens spent his life writing. He dedicated himself to it like Kalanithi dedicated himself to surgery, he just had a little more time to become excellent.
If there’s a point to this life, I’d be willing to bet it has something to do with trying to be excellent. I don’t think it matters at what. If there’s something you want to get good at, now’s the time. It’s later than you think.