Category: Philosophy

When Breath Becomes Air

Cover image for When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithiby Paul Kalanithi

ISBN 978-1-4104-8785-8

“I was less driven by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: what makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain.”

After ten years of medical education, Paul Kalanithi was on the verge of completing his training as a neurosurgeon when he became concerned about his own health. At first he blamed the rigours of residency, but a CT scan soon revealed the worst: cancer in the lungs, spine, and liver. Early in his university career, Kalanithi studied literature, dreaming of a career as a writer, but was driven to medicine by questions about mortality and meaning that he felt could not be answered by literature alone. Suddenly, those questions became urgent and personal, and the only time left to write a book and achieve that dream was now.

Kalanithi’s February 2014 New York Times op-ed “How Long Have I Got Left?” was a viral sensation. Two years later, Kalanithi is dead, but his book, When Breath Becomes Air, has been on the New York Times best-seller list for twenty-nine weeks as of this writing. It sits a few spots above Being Mortal, by fellow Indian-American doctor Atul Gawande, which has been on the list for eighty-one weeks. Clearly the theme of mortality has struck a nerve.

When Breath Becomes Air is both short (280 pages) and fast-paced. One moment Kalanithi and his wife are considering whether or not to get pregnant, and a couple pages later, she is three months along. At no point does he arrive at the moment he decided to start writing the book, though his connection to literature is evident and explored. The style, the sense of rushing, is literally characteristic of the state in which Kalanithi was living; the timeline he had expected suddenly sped up and warped beyond recognition. When Breath Becomes Air is, in a sense, unfinished, derailed by Kalanithi’s rapid decline. But that is an essential component of its truth, of the reality that he faced.

Up front, Kalanithi admits that he and his wife were struggling at the time of his diagnosis. The long hours of medical school and residency—his wife is also a doctor—had taken a toll on their connection. But I was moved by the fact that his illness reconnected them. I didn’t get the sense that Lucy stayed out of obligation, but rather that the diagnosis stripped away everything that had gotten between them over the years. To be honest, Lucy Kalanithi’s epilogue was the part of the book that affected me most. This is, perhaps, unfair. She had time; time to reflect, and time to polish, a luxury her husband did not enjoy.

Kalanithi’s concern with seeking the meaning of life is largely philosophical, and occasionally religious. He is able to approach his death theoretically and intellectually, in a manner that can almost seem cold, even as it is also obviously the fire that drove him into medicine in the first place. After getting two degrees in literature, Kalanithi put off his dream of being a writer to pursue the medical side of this question, imagining a literary career could wait until after he was an established neurosurgeon and researcher. He is idealistic, and even romantic, still finding his voice even as he loses it. When Breath Becomes Air is simultaneously reflective and rushed, because while Kalanithi is concerned with big, deep questions, he was left with little time to ponder them.

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Further reflections on life and death: Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Religion for Atheists

Cover image for Religion for Atheists by Alain de Bottonby Alain de Botton

ISBN 978-0-307-47682-1

The challenge facing atheists is how to reverse the process of religious colonization: how to separate ideas and rituals from the religious institutions which have laid claim to them but don’t truly own them.”

Despite the title, Religion for Atheists is in no way an attempt to convert non-believers. Stated bluntly, and up front, de Botton writes that “of course no religions are true in any God-given sense.” As such, there are no arguments about the truth of religion; de Botton begins with a basic assumption of atheism, and from there proceeds to examine religious traditions and rituals with an eye to incorporating them into secular culture, in order to enhance community, compassion, education, art and architecture, among others. De Botton draws examples from Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism, and imagines secular institutions and rituals which would imitate the emotional resonance of religion without the supernatural beliefs.

Although atheists often critique theists for cherry-picking their beliefs—shellfish are fine now that we have refrigeration, but homosexual acts are definitely still sinful—removing the assumption of divine revelation does leave atheists free to borrow selectively from religion if they so desire. The problem here is to get atheists to agree about the aspects of religions that are worth emulating, particularly if, like de Botton, you want these secular rituals to be part of large institutions with a wide reach and deep pockets. De Botton offers a number of suggestions, some of which were intriguing and insightful, but others singled out areas in which religion has only been arguably successful, or where it has been more adept in theory than in deed. For example, he uses the Catholic Mass as an example of a unifying experience which erases divisions such as race and class, but in practice many congregations are segregated by the neighbourhoods from which they draw attendees. In this sense, his book is imbued with a sense of nostalgia for something which may never have actually existed except as an ideal. Additionally, many of his secular alternatives felt trivial and overly simplistic, lacking the significance of the rituals they were designed to emulate.

Over all, de Botton’s attitude towards religious practices consists of entirely too much reverence, and not enough criticism. Although he advocates “selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts,” he wholly fails to account for how his proposed secular saints and rituals will avoid practices of indoctrination and deification, and encourage the critical thinking that is essential to most atheists’ conceptions of secularism. Despite a chapter on the virtues of pessimism, it is all too easy to imagine this philosophy blithely and optimistically ushering in a “benevolent” secular totalitarianism of ritual and prescription. Those of a religious persuasion will have no need for these ideas, and those of a more atheistic or agnostic bent will find that de Botton’s suggestions lack the rigour of thought they would expect from a fellow skeptic. For those atheists who hear the siren call of ritual and tradition, but cannot bring themselves to believe in God, de Botton’s ideas may find some appeal, but this book is not otherwise recommended.

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Looking for more books about secular thought? I recommend The Portable Atheist, a collection of essays and excerpts edited by Christopher Hitchens.

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2012

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read (not necessarily published) in 2012. Click the title for links to full reviews, where applicable. You can see my top 5 fiction titles for the year here.

Quiet (978-0307352149)

Cover image for Quiet by Susan CainThis title is at the top of a number of booklists for 2012 with good reason. Bookish folks, myself included, related powerfully to Susan Cain’s passionate message about the undervaluation of introversion in Western culture. The book cuts a broad swath, from outlining the rise of the extrovert ideal, to the psychological roots of introversion, to the perception of introversion in other cultures, to tips on how introverts and extroverts can work better together. Cain strips away the cultural stigma attached to introversion and examines the unique and underutilized skills of the quiet folks. This title was incredibly well written and researched, and Cain’s voice is passionate and compelling. You can watch Cain’s TED Talk on the power of introverts here.

Categories: Psychology

Joseph Anton (978-0812992786)

Cover Image for Joseph Anton by Salman RushdieSalman Rushdie thinks of himself first and foremost as a writer, but for over a decade, his life was dominated by disparate public perceptions stemming from the aftermath of the fatwa in which Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence for the blasphemous contents of his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie gives a compelling account of his struggles to hold on to his identity as a writer, and to continue to produce fiction under the incredibly trying circumstances of a protection. He filled many roles during this time, planning safe houses, engaging in free speech advocacy, lobbying the British government to intercede on his behalf, and struggling to secure a paperback edition of the book. I picked this book up because I admire Rushdie’s commitment to intellectual freedom, but I came away with much more respect for his integrity and determination as a writer, even as I felt I had seen the darkest and least flattering parts of the man.

Categories: Autobiography

The Portable Atheist (978-0306816086)

Cover Image for the Portable Atheist by Christopher HitchensStretching from Greek philosophy to contemporary humour and science writing, The Portable Atheist contains a broad selection of essays chronicling the evolution of atheist, agnostic and humanist thought in Western culture. The essays are selected and introduced by “New Atheist” writer Christopher Hitchens, but the pieces demonstrate that some of our currents ideas about atheism have very old roots indeed. This volume was slow, hefty reading, but extremely rewarding.

Categories: History, Philosophy

Elizabeth the Queen (978-0812979794)

Cover image for Elizabeth the Queen by  Sally Bedell SmithWhether you are a royalist, and abolitionist, or simply indifferent to the British royal family, Elizabeth Windsor has had a long and interesting life and reign, presiding over six decades of rapid change. Queen Elizabeth II is simultaneously one of the most public figures in the world, and yet intensely private, so it is fascinating to catch in glimpse into her world, particularly in a way that so humanizing. Sally Bedell Smith profiles the Queen with the same attention to detail she is known for in her previous works on the Kennedys and the Clintons. This title focuses on Elizabeth’s time as queen with little attention to her childhood, and the author is certainly friendly to her subject, but overall this was a well-written and informative read.

Categories: Biography

The Storytelling Animal (978-0547391403)

Cover Image for The Storytelling AnimalThe storytelling phenomenon appears across time and cultures, raising the questions of what purpose, if any, it serves in human evolution. Gottschall examines contexts in which our desire to impose narrative order on the world is useful (recognizing patterns) and detrimental (eyewitness testimony is unreliable due to the plasticity of memory). Dreams and daydreams, the pretend play of children, and the relationship between empathy and fiction are all examined in this brief and tantalizing introduction to the neuroscience behind our narrative impulses.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Science

 

The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever

Cover Image for the Portable Atheist by Christopher HitchensSelected and with introductions by Christopher Hitchens

ISBN 978-0-306-81608-6

If you read about atheism, you are probably familiar with the work of the late Christopher Hitchens, and his most famous contemporaries, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Dan Dennett. In The Portable Atheist, Hitchens offers readers the opportunity to expand their horizons with an anthology containing 47 essays and excerpts on unbelief. Dawkins, Harris and Dennett are all represented, but Hitchens’ selections range from Greek philosophy (Lucretius) to English poetry (Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin) to modern scientific treatises (Victor Stenger). This collection offers dozens of arguments against the existence of a deity, but it is also a book about the evolution of unbelief in Western culture. By arranging the readings in chronological order rather than by theme, Hitchens creates a history of non-theism which contextualizes the current state of affairs. While the language and style of some of the older readings may be challenging for the modern reader, their contents can also be startling in their continued relevance. Although there are some leavening humourous pieces (Michael Shermer), the book leans towards a scholarly tone.

The book weighs in at a hefty (and somewhat less than portable) 499 pages and yet undoubtedly could have included many more selections. Notably absent are Nietzsche, Voltaire and Bakunin to name only a few. Hitchens briefly introduces each reading in his customary style, but is sometimes sparse on biographical details, perhaps due to space constraints. The index is likewise somewhat cursory for such a lengthy text. As noted by Hitchens himself, the selections are heavy on white men, and Oxonians. Excellent writers from the Jewish and Muslim traditions, including Steven Weinberg, Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, are included, but the collection predominantly assumes a Christian background. However, the volume does reflect the wide variety of non-belief from atheism to agnosticism to humanism that has arisen from within these confines.