It’s been a whirlwind five weeks as we on the shadow panel have made our way through the six books shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2017. The list is strong and varied: an account of the AIDS crisis, a posthumous memoir by a neurosurgeon, a thorough history of genetics, an introduction to the microbial world, and novels about a donor heart and an ordinary family’s encounter with unexpected illness. All have been well worth engaging with, but when it came to decision time we had a pretty clear winner: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. (With Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone a fairly close second.)
“I realized that the questions intersecting life, death, and meaning, questions that all people face at some point, usually arise in a medical context.” ~Paul Kalanithi
I first read this book a year and a half ago; when I picked it back up on Friday, I thought I’d give it just a quick skim to remind myself why I loved it. Before I knew it I’d read 50 pages, and I finished it last night in the car on the way back from a family party, clutching my dinky phone as a flashlight, awash in tears once again. (To put this in perspective: I almost never reread books. My last rereading was of several Dickens novels for my master’s in 2005–6.)
What struck me most on my second reading is how Kalanithi, even in his brief life, saw both sides of the medical experience (as the U.K. book cover portrays so well). He was the harried neurosurgery resident making life and death decisions and marveling at the workings of the brain; in a trice he was the patient with terminal lung cancer wondering how to make the most of his remaining time with his family.
Yet in both roles his question was always “What makes human life meaningful?” – a quest that kept him shuttling between science, literature and religion. In eloquent prose and with frequent scriptural allusions, this short, technically unfinished book narrates Kalanithi’s past (his growing-up years and medical training), present (undergoing cancer treatment but ultimately facing death) and future (the legacy he leaves behind, including his daughter).
Looking back once again at the guidelines for the Wellcome Book Prize (“At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human”), When Breath Becomes Air stands out as a perfect exemplar. In her blog review, Ruby writes, “This book looks death right in the eye and doesn’t seek to rationalise it, explain it, avoid it. It deals with it head on.” In his Nudge review Paul calls the book “equally heart breaking and full of love … a painfully honest account of a short, but intense life.”
Tomorrow evening the winner of the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 will be announced at an awards ceremony at the Wellcome Collection in London. As thanks for my participation in the blog tour, I’ve been invited to attend. Small talk and networking are very much outside of my comfort zone, but I couldn’t pass up this opportunity and hope to at the very least meet one or two fellow bloggers. I’ll post very quickly when I get home from the ceremony tomorrow night to announce the winner, and promise a longer write-up of the event sometime on Tuesday.