The first-year reading for the Class of 2020 is When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir by the late Dr. Paul Kalanithi. He begins with a shock: at the age of 35, at the beginning of a career as a promising young neurosurgeon, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The book, written while he was dying, is a meditation on facing his death, on the brain and human identity, on medicine and the doctor-patient relationship, and a reflection on what was meaningful about his career and life.
Telling the story of his education, Kalanithi recounts that as a college student he was torn between literature and science, and ended up majoring in both English literature and human biology. Continuing to follow his passion for both ways of knowledge, he earned advanced degrees in both literature and the history and philosophy of science and medicine before enrolling in medical school, a step he took after deciding that "the direct experience of life and death questions was essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them."
As a medical student, and as a resident, Dr. Kalanithi did indeed encounter daily "the direct experience of life and death." But his illness forced him to become a patient as well as a physician, and understand more deeply the relationship between the two. "I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything," he wrote. "Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: I can't go on. I'll go on."
Ultimately I found the book to be a moving affirmation of life. Paul Kalanithi had an intense intellectual curiosity and a profound moral imagination, and so his message is a fitting introduction to a Jesuit liberal arts education. I look forward to discussing When Breath Becomes Air with the Class of 2020.
Dean, Class of 2020