a blank slate

a blank slate

Tag: paul kalanithi

You Haven’t Lived Until You’ve Read These Books

A few weeks ago, I finally read The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare after having successfully TBR-ed it for nearly ten years! This was after yet another student recommended it to me. Now teenagers often and easily talk in superlatives, yet this one clung to my mind like a fly in a web. She said: you haven’t lived until you’ve read this series. Coming from a 10 year old, this statement earns a massive eye roll, yet… it got me thinking. Which books, to me, deserve this tag?
This post needs multiple disclaimers. First: Such lists are incredibly personal and there are many books I like simply because of my context, the memories that go hand in hand with reading them, the discussions they have led me to. I’ve tried to remain objective, here, and base my choices on ideas espoused within the books. It’s been grueling, but these are big words to live up to. Each of these books has meant a lot to me, and I do hope that you discover a gem for yourself. Some day, I’ll write a Part 2. For now – 

1. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

A part-sermon part-fantasy, this is my favourite book. I have never found it difficult to name one favourite book, because this has had a profound impact on the way I look at life, since the age of around twelve, when I read it. It’s the story of a boy stuck on a lifeboat with nothing for company but the vast waters of the Pacific ocean… and, a tiger. A survival’s tale which seems like an adventure but has terror brewing beneath the surface. It explores themes of spirituality, grief, dealing with crisis. It opens your mind to accepting abstract uncertainty, making you truly open-minded, and moreover, shows you that you have the power to write your own story, for better or for worse.

Favourite quote: “If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”
2. Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin 
A mind-bending science fiction tale of a human emissary to a planet where gender is not fixed for any individual; rather can be chosen and changed at will. Mating only happens at a certain time and it is then that different genders are taken on. To them, humans are a perversion, retaining their genders forever. Our protagonist, the emissary, must reconcile with these differences on his mission to establish diplomatic relations with this planet. The book puts a new turn on the psychology of identity, and how we see us and others in the context of gender. Gives you a new perspective altogether on humans; perhaps controversial, but definitely one that demands introspection.

Favourite quote: “A man wants his virility regarded. A woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. [Here] one is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”

3. Ransom by David Malouf 

Myths have power, but this retelling shows you that the true power of story lies in the detail. A fragment of an incident transformed into a novella, Ransom describes an incident in the Trojan war – the moment when King Priam begs Achilles for his son Hector’s body, and the war is momentarily put on hold for his funeral. Many life stories build up to this uncanny display of humanity.
The strange meeting, of the aged father and the murderer of his son, at the centre of an unending war, is a beautiful study of men turned to figureheads at the hands of politics and war, and a mortal ambition to achieve immortality.

Favourite quote: We are mortals, not gods. We die. Death is in our nature. Without that fee paid in advance, the world does not come to us. That is the hard bargain life makes with us — with all of us, every one — and the condition we share. And for that reason, if for no other, we should have pity for one another’s losses.
4. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi 
A neurosurgeon diagnosed with lung cancer writes about death and what it means to be alive. We watch the irony unfold as someone who sees death on a daily basis ponders his own mortality. Through this memoir, born before his diagnosis, Kalanithi attempts to find the meaning of life. He discusses the point where philosophy and science intersect, as a man who intimately knows and loves both. He talks about the fate of relationships and ties in life and death. In a lucid and intellectual manner, this remarkable book says all the things we are afraid to think, and does so with a cutting clinical brilliance that only a doctor could manage. 

Favourite quote: Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.
5. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke was a German poet, who received a letter from 19-year-old Franz Xaver Kappus who was a poet himself. He’d sent Rilke one of his poems to critique. Rilke refused, giving the young poet his first lesson, that a good poet does not base his poetry one someone else’s appraisal. A short correspondence followed. Letters to a Young Poet is a collection of ten letters sent by Rilke to Kappus. It is about everything and nothing, life advice from an old soul. A book I think is just mandatory to be read at a young age, but of course, even later in life, as you begin to identify more with the writer than the intended audience. 

Favourite quote: Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Which books would you qualify this way?

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air is an incredible, honest book. Written in the face of cancer by a man who happened to have spent the better part of his life trying to gain an understanding of death, the book has the urgency of a story that needs to be told. There is no scope for pretences, there are no airs and, perhaps, Kalanithi held only a vague awareness of a reader in mind, and little concern for the impression the book would have on a prospective reader. Its authenticity is its driving force, which is a rare quality for memoirs.

“Most lives are lived
with passivity toward death — it’s something that happens to you and
those around you. But Jeff and I had trained for years to actively
engage with death, to grapple with it, like Jacob with the angel, and,
in so doing, to confront the meaning of a life. We had assumed an
onerous yoke, that of mortal responsibility. Our patients’ lives and
identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are
perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is
stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and
yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach
perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are
ceaselessly striving.” 
I sometimes feel like my childhood was a montage of medicine names
and hospital tales. I grew up around doctors and hospitals and what was
most interesting to me about this book was how so many of Paul’s
experiences with and views on medicine paralleled my father’s. The book
felt very personal. When Breath Becomes Air offers an insider’s view on
medicine, as a
profession, as a calling, as something that exists on the slippery slope
of morality. It gives a glimpse of the doctor’s view that we often fail to consider. 
Medicine, the hard reality of a doctor’s life, requires you to suspend the values you
have internalised – of what is right and wrong, what is permissible and
what is just, and most significantly, what is possible. Kalanithi writes, delicately, about music blasting in the
operation room, about dissecting cadavers in med school and about each time that a doctor has to tell a family that he is
sorry he could not help. 
When Breath Becomes Air is not about cancer. It is written by a man dying of lung cancer, yes. It is most definitely about death, or about life, which is rather the same. But it is not about struggling against the disease. It is not the glorification of a short life, it is not about making the most of your time left, it is no ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ (as my sister put it) and while there is nothing wrong with being any of these, I appreciated that the book was written not because the man had cancer but because he wanted to be a writer. His diagnosis only sealed the chosen fate.
“Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I
didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die,
but I didn’t know when.
But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one.
The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”
This book has a lot going for it. The biggest reason it appealed to me is for how it has planted this narrative in my head – this internal argument that forced Kalanithi to write the book. Have you read Because I could not stop for Death by Emily Dickinson? It is about the constant presence of death in the carriage of life. There is a persistent awareness of mortality in us, that Kalanithi suggests is what being human entails, be it in the form of loss or disease. What then, taking into account the inevitability of death, constitutes a meaningful life? A brilliant young man, in his final hour, muses on how to live.
When Breath Becomes Air lies on a fascinating intersection of
Literature (with an L) and science. Kalanithi writes at length about
studying literature with the aim to untangle the complexities of the
mind and later, almost dissatisfied with the limits of literature,
majoring in neuroscience to analyse the brain and its role in making
life meaningful. He flutters between the two, building a life around the
practice of science in the best of times, seeking comfort in Samuel
Beckett in the worst. He writes about where the two meet, philosophy and
science, their intersection. This book is about what literature and
science offer and what they lack, explained by a man who intimately
knows and loves both.
The book is also about family. About the fate of relationships and ties in life and death. Even as I write this, I wonder how a slip of a book was so many things… and this particular aspect of it, I don’t want to spoil with my words. I leave this for you to explore and experience. Terry Pratchett wrote, ‘no one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away.’ Paul Kalanithi has left us with a stormy ocean. Do read the book.