Sunday, 6 August 2017

15. Student Reads Review: When Breath Becomes Air

A project I previously announced that I would like to work on over this summer is starting my own mini book club. More than anything it is an opportunity for me to share some of the things that I have learnt about literary analysis (in the forms of a review) with those such as yourself who are looking for a personal project to keep you thinking over the summer and prepared for your degree/next round of exams. Especially with reading being such a popular summer activity, it seemed a good idea to put this into practice now when there is a larger amount of time free than usual due to the summer holidays.

Many of you will not yet know your reading lists or might be looking for something university appropriate to read over the summer. If this is the case and sounds like something you would be interested in, all you need to be a part of this book club is a copy of the book to read along and at the end of the month there will be a post with some further literary analysis of the text, a discussion of some of my own ideas in relation to the themes and a few other comments which will (if all goes to plan) allow you to see into the mind of a student going into the second year of studying literature at undergraduate level. I don't know everything about the subject yet mind you (and with the number of books available it is unlikely that I ever will) but for me, literature is an open conversation and the best part of it is sharing ideas. Sharing that conversation and all of those ideas is something that I, as an individual, am extremely passionate about.

For July our book of the month was When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.


This memoir focuses on not only the time in which Kalanithi was suffering with lung cancer but also on the time he took prior to this training to be a doctor, studying literature and his engagement with a variety of interests. As an individual voice, he brings so much to the page. He has that rare gift that others cannot gain through merely practice; That being his voice, which springs so readily from the page in a fashion which is almost musical. It is like he is sat there, right next to you, telling you his story. For this reason, this was an extremely difficult read at times for (as stated in the blurb) this memoir was published unfinished and posthumously. Yet still, despite this, there was always a desire to know what he says next and to learn from his experiences as both a student and as a person. Kalanithi may now have passed away, we may know how this story ends, but his entire personality lives on in this collection of thought and memory.

In addition to being a fascinating work of non-fiction which looks into such depth regarding the complexity and personal nature of cancer, this work has even more to offer to readers in regards to opening up the mind to that same motivation and infectious love of learning that Kalanithi has in which each and everyone of us can take comfort in the fact that we will never be alone. As a polymath, he is able to take neuro-surgery and make it into something which is incredibly literary. His outlook on the medical profession often rings with snippets of his favourite literary works, particularly poems he studied at Stanford which come back to him during a difficult period with so much more meaning. This reminded me of something a teacher said back in high-school about Wilfred Owen. Owen started out writing poetry before the war but only really achieved the voice we now recognise after he had experienced great loss and grief, as well as meeting others who he could share this with through poetry (such as Siegfried Sassoon). Sometimes, it takes having our own experiences to unlock perspectives that were not there before. 

A prevalent theme throughout the text was bravery, which often became intertwined with determination. Even when incredibly sick, Kalanithi began working to head back to surgery to help other people with their lives. And when he became aware of his limited time, he puts others before himself and changed his line of focus towards helping them deal with what he was going through. I think it is for this reason that his writing is so often filled with moments of realisation and epiphany - he is a shared diarist, comprehending an uncomprehendable situation through his words. 

There was a particular moment when his daughter was born, where he reflects on the intimacy between life and death - how the two are not really seperable binary opposites at all but are instead one and the same. Two different sides of the same coin. And at the end of the book, Kalanithi's final words are in regards to his daughter. She may never have truly known him in person, but those final words are incredibly personal. Especially in regards to the conversation surrounding cancer, this is a huge accomplishment. For thousands of people who have experienced this loss and for young carers, such as myself, it offers a great deal of hope that so long as there are people thinking and working as Kalanithi did, then the struggle is not in vain. There is always hope, no matter how bleak or difficult the situation. I am hugely grateful to Kalanithi for reminding me of that because it is an invaluable gift to hold and be reassured by.

In terms of how you might write about this at literature degree level, I think this would have fit fairly well with a module such as my contemporary writing class in which we frequently discussed the role of memoir and of trauma. Writers such as Lacapras are the sort of critics who might be used in initial research also. If you were answering a question such as How does Kalanithi show the impact of cancer on his life throughout the memoir? then you might split it into three sections. Personally I would focus upon how he shows his family reacting (including the epilogue), how he shows himself reacting, and also the contrast in narrative from the happy past (at the beginning of the novel) to the struggle of the present (middle to the end). 

As for a thesis, it's really hard to come up with just one. I think there is so much to be said for this book that I cannot quite sum up in words all of it due to just how blown away I have been by the whole experience of reading it. It has definitely changed me and my life. It has reached me on a personal level which makes it much harder to analyse than I initially thought it would. But due to the previous example question and elements you might comment upon, I think the best thesis statement to argue would be Through the contrast of the past and present for both himself and his family, Kalanithi is able to show that cancer is a complex illness which both destroys an old life and creates a new one within which hope is something which is worth everything.

Thank-you for all your support and comments. It is a fantastic thing to be able to help answer any of your questions and to share my adventure with all of you. It makes my day every day! 

If you like, you can click here to vote for me as Blogger of the month. Thank-you! 


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