"You can't force yourself to overlook something that goes against your principles, and you can't change your experiences to fit someone else's life." -- Stephen Mack Jones, "Lives Laid Away"

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Life Is Uncertain

     I read, on average, one book a week. I keep a journal of my books, because otherwise I wouldn't remember them. I consider myself a reader, although I know others who read more than I do. I plowed through Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, at a little more than 500 pages; but there's no way I'm picking up Grant by Ron Chernow. It's over 1000 pages!

     I have a friend who reads, literally, a book a day. He's a fast reader, and I always think he must be skimming; but I find that he often remembers more about a book than I do.

     B, a retired librarian, usually has two or three books going at once. She has an upstairs book and a downstairs book. And very often she's got something else going as well. We both like mysteries, but otherwise we don't read a lot of the same books, just as we don't watch a lot of the same TV programs. (She's currently binge watching Grace & Frankie, a show I tried once but didn't like.) She reads a lot of chick lit and a lot of book-club-type books. I read mysteries and some history and a few biographies.

     Are you a reader? I know not everyone is, which is why I generally don't recommend books on this blog. A lot of people don't care. But I have to point you in the direction of one book I just finished. B read it two years ago when it first came out. It's called When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi, a surgeon at Stanford Medical School.

     Here's how the story begins:

     “I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurological resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own.”

     He goes on to describe how he lost weight and suffered from back pain, attributing his symptoms to a punishing schedule at the hospital. But he finally gets an X ray, on his way to visit friends in New York. “I'd hoped a few days out of the OR, with adequate sleep, rest and relaxation – in short a taste of normal life – would bring my symptoms back into normal range. But after a day or two it was clear there would be no reprieve.” He goes home early; sees the blurry X-ray, and lies down next to his wife. “I need you,” he says.

     The author then recounts how he got to where he was – growing up in Arizona the son of Indian immigrants, studying English literature at Stanford trying to divine the meaning of life; then after a post-graduate year in England, opting for Yale Medical School, then back to Stanford for his residency. He describes his first experiences cutting up a cadaver; the first death of a patient; his decision to go into neurosurgery where the mind meets the brain, where life meets death, where the meaning of life is never more critical.

     He undergoes one therapy which puts him in remission, and he goes back to work. But again the pain, the exhaustion. The cancer reappears. Before he undergoes chemotherapy he freezes sperm, because the chemo can damage the genes . . . and his wife gets pregnant.

     There's more to the story. So if you want to be inspired by someone's courage and honesty in the face of a life-changing disease, pick up a copy of the book on amazon, or at your library. It's only 230 pages, so you can share his "beautiful mind," even if you're not a big reader.


http://peacefulheartopenmind.blogspot.com/ said...

I am also what some call a voracious reader. I have books all over my house which I am reading. They are next to my bed, on the table by my favorite chair, in my purse, in my car (in case of long lights, construction or traffic jams). I love recommendations of books and I will definitely be looking to read "When Breath becomes Air". Thank you and happy reading.

tahoegirl.blog said...

That book was such a tear jerker. He was very brave. Recently, my PCP of 37 years was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was the one who helped me thru my cancer diagnosis. In his words, "it's more fun to be a doctor than a patient'. So true.

Terra said...

Oh my, this sounds very sad. I might read it, since my dear husband died I have been reading lots of memoirs, especially of people whose partner died. I read on average 2 books a week and like you I write them down so I remember. My favorite author is Anthony Trollope, I have read about 25 of his 47 fabulous novels.

Mona McGinnis said...

I start and end my day with reading and indulge in it in between as well - in the winter in front of the window where the sun pours in or in the summer in the late afternoon on the verandah. It's not unusual to have more than one book on the go. I just finished a book this morning, "Transit" by Rachel Cusk, a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize literary award. I've read "When Breath Becomes Air"; it left me wanting more. I felt that Kalanithi wrote from a clinical perspective. The chapter written by his wife was what really spoke to me. The last book that reeled me in was the "Century Trilogy" by Ken Follett. I love words. I keep a To Read list. If I think there's nothing to do, I can always read a book or go for a walk.

Anonymous said...

Tom, do read Grant. Think of it as two books - two weeks - as Chernow first takes the reader through Grant's early life, obscurity and into the Civil War then onto Army leadership, the presidency and his later years. It's a fascinating character study, engagingly written and particularly satisfying given the approach to leadership of so many of today's public figures. Bet you'll really enjoy it.

Trudi said...

A week or two ago there was a profile in the Washington Post of Lucy Kalanithi and John Duberstein. John is the widower of Nina Riggs who wrote "The Bright Hour", a memoir about dying young of breast cancer. The two survivors became friends and then an item... despite living far apart. The article was an interesting code to two sad journals.

DJan said...

I read that book awhile back and think maybe I should reread it. I'm struggling through Katherine Graham's autobiography which, while engaging, is dense and my eyes get really tired while my brain keeps up much better. I love to read, too. :-)

Anonymous said...

I wrote 3 memoirs myself and self published them. The books were sold at Borders Book Stores. They shut down and so did my book business.

Barb said...

I have a two read list, as well as a "books coming out list" that I get from Fantastic fiction and use for early library reviews. Normally it's a couple a week at least, unless there is something very heavy in there.

Celia said...

I enjoy two+ books a week, mysteries, fiction, and non-fiction. Right now I'm reading everything I can about China, especially Michael Meyer's memoir "The Road to Sleeping Dragon." He went there two years to teach with the Peace Corps and ended up making it his home. of living in China. Always wanted to visit but that's not going to happen. Along with that is "Young Men and Fire" a powerful memoir about a horrible fire in Montana and the first airborne firefighters by Norman Maclean. Plus Robert Crais' Elvis Cole mysteries. Piles of other stuff here and there.

Tabor said...

I read 40-50 books a year but my memory is not as good and I can not remember many until reminded by the book review. I use that instead of notes. I love reading even though I don't remmember. I used to love mysteries but with a weaker memory they are harder for me to follow. Ah well.

Olga said...

I have always been a reader and usually have a fiction and a nonfiction book going at the same time. I am a slow reader though. I do wish I could remember what I read a little better. I am always awed by those who can quote favorite passages from books they have read. My husband was like that. He was really a voracious reader and somehow managed to keep in his head what he read in which book. I really envied that ability.

Jono said...

I'm at about one book every two weeks, but it sometimes turns into one a week. Mostly mysteries, but sometimes history or historical fiction. I have heard of this book, but I will wait until the days are longer to read it and there are at least three ahead of it. It took a long time after college for me to be able to read for pleasure again.

Bob Lowry said...

When I find an author I like I start an index card, writing down titles of each one I read. To make sure I don't reread something, those cards come with me to the library. It's the easiest way I have found to keep track of what I have and have not read by the 20 or so authors I most enjoy at the moment.

When every title in the library is listed on a particular card for an author, I will pick someone new to sample and start a new card if his or her work entices me.

Rebecca Olkowski said...

Okay, I'll admit it. I'm not a big reader of books. I like magazines and non-fiction stuff mostly. I read online, watch movies and see theater. It's partly because I have trouble remembering what I read and can't recite passages either. The story about the doctor sounds inspiring and sad. My husband also died of cancer so I can relate.

John Going Gently said...

Late follower who has just promised myself to read more

Anonymous said...

I also read "When Breath Becomes Air" about 2 years ago. I had seen his wife and daughter on a morning program talking about it. I recommended it to my sister whose son has had several brain tumor surgeries and is still alive but struggling. I also have several books I'm reading at once and keep a running list of books I want to read in my kitchen ready to grab when I go to the library. I love to read non-fiction and autobiographies.- plynjyn

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Anonymous said...

I read "When Breathe Becomes Air" a couple of years ago - such a good book - it stayed with me for such a long time - sad but so beautifully written - such a brave man. I read at least two to three books a week - love mysteries - non-fiction - try to pick out books off the NYT Best selling list - I could never go thru a day without reading - even if I only have a few free moments - I've been known to stay up all night reading a book I just could not put down - So many books - so little time. Enjoy your blog - I'm 72 and loving life..Mary Ellen from Wisconsin

Wisewebwoman said...

Thanks Tom, put it in my queue at the library. Must have missed this when it first came out.