About a week ago, a writer friend of mine mentioned the title of a book I had never heard of before, and she indicated that it had shot to the top of the amazon bestseller list – the list that tracks all books sold on the site, not just the sliced and diced amazon categories that let practically every writer claim their book is a bestseller.
I was immediately struck by the title – When Breathe Becomes Air.
A good title grabs hold of you and won’t let you go. This one was poetic and mysterious – a kind of Zen puzzle. What did it mean? It intrigued me. It pulled me in. I scribbled it down on one of the 3x5 yellow pads I keep on my desk.
I kept glancing at the title and finally decided to go learn more about it – and at that moment, I also decided to chronicle my reaction to the book and how fast it would take me to decide whether I would buy it or read it, or not.
Like you, my days are crammed full. A thousand things vie for my attention. I don’t have time for much of it, or interest, or bandwidth to process it. I wanted to do a mini study of what it would take for a book to get through the noise – and because of the title of this one, I had a feeling it would get through.
When I went to Google, I had invested all of about 5 seconds in the book. That’s how long it took me to hear about it to write down those four words. I knew nothing about it other than the title and its status on the bestseller list. The fact that a trusted friend has mentioned it to me carried a lot of weight.
I Googled the book and was hit with a barrage of entries – ABS News, Katie Couric on Yahoo, The New York Times, Brain Pickings. I picked a review by The San Jose Mercury News because it was on the top of the list and that newspaper has always had excellent book reviews.
I was now about 10 seconds in.
I scanned the piece and learned in another 10 seconds that the book was about a young accomplished neurosurgeon chronicling his own death, and so I kept reading.
Why? Because this is a topic I love to read about. I have a shelf full of books about death -- How We Die, Kitchen table Wisdom, A Grief Observed, The Rules of Inheritance and its follow up After This, Being Mortal, H is for Hawk – the most recent one to earn a place in my living room bookcase. I am a cancer survivor (breast cancer, 16 years ago), and death is of great interest to me – how it happens, how absolute it is, what it tells us about living.
I do not, however, blindly going buy and read any book on death. I passed on the recent Gratitude by Oliver Sacks (another neurosurgeon), even though it got rave reviews. I have never loved Sack’s work, I wasn’t drawn in by the title or the cover or anything I read about it, so I passed.
But When Breath Becomes Air drew me in. I read further in the newspaper review and got to these words:
What follows is a poignant account of his life, his quest to find meaning, his efforts to retain his humanity in the grind of becoming a doctor and, ultimately, his thoughts on dying.
As he and his wife, Lucy, grapple with whether to become parents in their remaining time together, she asks him: "Don't you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?"
He replies: "Wouldn't it be great if it did?"
At that point, I was sold. Because being a mother is both a wonderful and a terrifying thing, and I would like to learn from someone who so clearly embraced the wonder over the terror, because I, frankly, have not always been very good at that.
So 50 seconds into knowing about this book, I clicked over to amazon and saw all the praise for author Paul Kalanithi, all the critical reviews, the extraordinary book jacket copy – and I put the book in my Wish List. I have 12 other books on my bedside table, plenty to read. I didn’t need this book any time soon.
But the day after I put it on my Wish List, I kept thinking about that book – the title, the conceit, a man who had a child knowing he was going to die because he believed that strongly in human connection. I typed it into Google again and found the video that was going viral of the Katie Couric interview.
While I waited for the ads to spin through their cycle (I hate those ads), I read the piece by Brad Marshland and came across these words:
Paul wrote in When Breath Becomes Air that if he could have some sense of how much time he had left, it would be easier to set his priorities. “If I have two years, I’d write. If I have 10 years, I’d go back to surgery and science.” Living his values, he went back to practicing neurosurgery for a time — and he wrote a book. As it turned out, he had 22 months.
And that was it. Those words that were all I needed because now I saw that this was a book about death and writing and life and how we make meaning, and I was desperate to read it. 70 seconds into knowing about it, I bought the book. It is winging its way to me even as we speak. (I know, I know – I should have gone to my local independent bookstore. I am a sucker for instant gratification when it comes to books.)
I saw in her what I had glimpsed in my 70-second encounter with the book – a rare chance to learn how to live in the way that I would like to live, an opportunity to stop letting fear get in the way of wonder.
Books do that to us. They elevate us. They lift us out of our simple existence. They make us want to be our best selves. And all books have the ability to do this, not just books about life and death.
A dear friend of mine recently had a baby and I sent him a copy of the sweet little board book, Owl Babies. It maybe has 75 words total. It’s a little story about three who are afraid their mom won’t come back, and at the end, she does. I love that book. It, too, lifts me up. I also sent Goodnight, Gorilla, about some animals who outwit the zookeeper. It has no words. And it never ceases to make me smile.
We buy the books that make us feel something, that tap into something deep within us, and we know almost instantly that they are going to do that – by the way our friends speak about them, by the way others write about them, by just a few sample words about what riches they contain.
All of which makes me wonder: am I pouring enough courage, intelligence, generosity of spirit, grace, humbleness, love, and authenticity into the book I am currently writing?