When Breath Becomes Air

There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

The message is simple:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

 

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The quote above is the conclusion of this tremendously powerful book. For a variety of biographical reasons I found it hit me particularly hard. That it was written under the duress of an advancing terminal cancer is astonishing. The risk with this sort of book is a descent into sentimentality, or a sort of “here are 7 life lessons” reduction (… let me guess … lesson 7: seize the day?). This is not that sort of book. Here is Kalanithi at one point in his treatment:

The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?

It is not that there is nothing to learn here (Kalanithi’s oncologist encourages him repeatedly as treatment progresses “to find his values” and part of what makes the book interesting and moving is his wrestling with this mission) but it is complex, thorny, multi-layered. This is one that will stick with me – and perhaps I’ll have more to write about it later.

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Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo

I listened to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci as an audiobook (I knew little of Leonardo outside of the sort of standard popular culture stuff that everyone seems to know, so caveat lector for what follows). In many ways it is an ideal audiobook: packed full of interesting facts, an interesting subject (but one that’s not a person or area of particular interest for me), written in a clear “journalistic” style, well narrated by Alfred Molina, accompanied by a detailed .pdf document, etc.

I felt like I received a good introduction to Leonardo, and a list of additional sources I could explore if I wanted to pursue his work and life further, but there was something in Isaacson’s presentation that I found irritating at times. Especially in the introduction and conclusion of the book, there was a certain “You too, can be like Leonardo” emphasis. Not that Isaacson is saying Leonardo wasn’t a genius, and that anyone with a certain set of techniques is able to paint the Mona Lisa. But, he emphasizes a number of times that Leonardo’s genius isn’t due some sort of off-the-charts intellectual horsepower (à la Isaac Newton), but grounded in things a regular person can imitate in her own small way (i.e. curiosity, a child-like sense of wonder, indulging in fantasy etc.).

It’s not that the lessons for creativity that Isaacson draws from Leonardo’s life are bad – in fact, they’re all pretty good advice – everyone could do with a little more wonder. And I don’t think it’s even the sort of “self-helpy”  tone that bothers me (after all, “Every book is self-help”) – it wouldn’t be the route I’d go, but whatever. I think my complaint is more that in his attempts to make Leonardo accessible, Isaacson misses or downplays some of the strangeness of Leonardo. While much of Leondardo’s life and personality remains mysterious (and Isaacson admirably resists the urge to speculate), what we do know makes him seem (to me) deeply strange and eccentric. In the desire to avoid perpetuating the Romantic myths of the “tortured genius” Isaacson perhaps downplays Leonardo’s “otherness” (and perhaps also the “otherness” of Leonardo’s context) too much.

I think many of Isaacson’s readers will think this is a feature rather than a bug. When reading about a historical figure and period, many readers want them to be made accessible, and want to know how the people of the past are “just like us.” Whereas, I’m always suspicious of this sort of equation – I’m always more curious about all the things I don’t (and maybe can’t) understand about a historical figure or time period: an emphasis on the differences rather than the similarities.

Life will not conform

The death of the spirit is to lose confidence in one’s own independence and to do only what we are expected to do. At the same time, it is a mistake to expect anything specific from life. Life will not conform.

Penelope Fitzgerald, at the end of her life, quoted in Hermione Lee’s biography. “Life will not conform” summarizes Fitzgerald’s own struggles in many ways, and is a fundamental theme of her fiction (“life makes its own corrections” as a sledge driver says in The Beginning of Spring). They should probably just stamp it on the back of the books, I’m sure it would boost sales.

(As an aside: Lee is very good at arranging her material. She places this quote just prior to Fitzgerald starting to write and publish, in her late 50s. In another wise decision she discusses the books not in order of publication, but in relation to the parts of Fitzgerald’s life to which they seem most connected – although something like this was inevitable, I suppose, given how late in life Fitzgerald started writing/publishing).

Wodehouse: A Life

Wodehouse: A LifeWodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As one might expect, an author who published 90+ books in his lifetime (along with plays, articles, lyrics etc.) didn’t have much time for pursuits outside of writing. He was an unusually single-minded, almost compulsive, writer. Wodehouse is a tough subject for a biography – elusive and opaque – a “laureate of repression” in his fiction, as McCrum puts it. The most dramatic event in his life was his greatest public failing (the WWII broadcasts – a point where his single-mindedness led him seriously astray), and the rest of his life was consumed by his work, for the most part. McCrum does a nice job of avoiding unwarranted speculation about “the psychology of the individual” while also providing some helpful context. I enjoyed it.

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