PDBE: Public Displays of Book Emotion

By: Taylor Nam

Scrunched down in the second to last bus row on the way home from school with a backpack full of rice cakes and pens and gum wrappers and notebooks, I’m weeping into a little white book. 

If you know me at all, you will know that I have a tendency towards very heavy, obsessive even, emotionally investment in whatever book I happen to be reading. If you know me even just a little bit, you will know that I have frequently dreamt about characters, putting myself in their story, or even changing the story in my dreams, because I didn’t like how it ended in real life. In real life, I mean in real book life. Which is real life. Don’t fight me on this. 

And, furthermore, if you are a book person (like me), you will appreciate the heartbreak of Deathly Hollows, the somehow hilarious rhythm of Catcher in the Rye, and the thrill of The Westing Game, and on and on. Or, at least you will have your own titles to which you relate as if they are, indeed, your friends. 

I have talked about books being friends/magic/etc. before, so I shall not bore you, my dear readers (whomever you may be—hi, Mom!) by belaboring that point. 

Rather, my desire would be to tell you about a specific book. The book that caused me to cry the whole way home. The book that compelled me to sit in my lobby for thirty minutes so I could finish it before going home. The book that I will read every year probably for the rest of my life.

Like I said, it’s a small book, both in size and page count. And yet. Just wow, and yet: this book could move mountains.

I feel the compulsion to write a brief introduction to the book so you will even know what I am talking about. So, the author, Paul Kalanithi, wrote this book called When Breath Becomes Air. In the first pages, Paul introduces himself as a fourth-year neurosurgeon resident, which means that he is almost done with all his formal training. He will be a “real”, fully-practicing doctor in just a few months. All his dreams shall be realized. Then, as if it was meant to be (and indeed, I have to believe it was meant to be), he is diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.

Wait, stop. 

I can already hear your protests: this is a dying book, this is a sad book, I don’t want to read about death, everyone writes about death, every book has someone dying, etc., etc….are you done? Okay, thank you, now, please listen for just a few paragraphs:

This is not a dying book. Yes, someone dies and, not a spoiler because it’s important to know going into the book: Paul, the author, was a real live man who died last year. He wrote this book during the last few months of his life. And again, I say, it is not a dying book. It’s about so much more than that. 

It’s about meaning and purpose—what is that, exactly? It’s about a young man’s study to find such meaning and purpose. It is about truth and how one finds truth with a capital T: Truth. It is about life and living, it’s about calling and dream, it’s about what to do when the life you think you’re about to have crashes into the dream you have begun to realize. 

It is the sheer, inescapable humanity. It was Paul’s voice like one of a wind against a cliff, like the whiskey poured at his gravesite, like the eighteen hours spent with the brain in surgery. The detail and finality of a cut, a movement. The decisions no one wants to make, but someone has to make. The desperate, human desire to be worth something, to do something worth doing. The finite. The infinite. 

I could go on and on about this book. And I will go on and on for a long time. 

This is the kind of book that is so important for people like me, young people, millennials, people “just starting out” or seeking a purpose. Where indeed do I find meaning? And how? And why? Why, indeed. 

While reading Paul’s book, I ripped up little pieces of receipts and other random paper I happened to find in my backpack (gum wrappers, homework, etc) and stuck them in pages that particularly resonated with me. I wanted to go back and marvel, think, breathe some more, some other time, in the future. I wanted to remember those words. That is this book—it’s what you want to remember. 

When I finished When Breath Becomes Air, I was changed. My perspective, everything, seemed changed. If you’re afraid of change or revelation or any kind of truth, stay away from this book. If you’re not willing to be challenged, run the other way. If you don’t want to openly weep on the bus during rush hour, don’t read this book. However, if you’re not: soak in this book.

Read this book. Buy it from an indie store, of course. Or borrow from a friend. Or something—just get your mind in this book and let it think deeply, draw deeply, consider the weight of a breath.