A Year in Books: January
Happy new year, dear friends! 2017 — the year I graduate, begin real life “adulthood,” and, hopefully, cultivate a continuing love for books. My goal this year is to read 2 books a month, and attempt to blog a bit about them! With a little extra time this month from winter break, I kicked off a year in books (thank you Zuck, for the title inspiration hehe) with 3 incredible reads:
The Magnolia Story
By Chip & Joanna Gaines
In a nutshell: This memoir follows Chip and Joanna Gaines (of HGTV’s Fixer Upper fame) from their college days at Baylor University to their hit show and business.
My dearest friend Ev thoughtfully gifted me this book on the first day of the New Year. It was the perfect, light read to kick off a year in books! Ev and I are both huge fans of Fixer Upper — the hilarious and refreshing HGTV show that follows the Gaines as they turn forgotten, run down homes into stunning spaces. The show makes me want to buy a farm in Waco, Texas and raise four beautiful children alongside goats, pigs, cows and endless puppies. Jo’s impeccable design eye and Chip’s construction chops are legit #relationshipgoals. Chip and Jo have a knack for storytelling, and I thought the split narration in their memoir was charming. Chip and Jo’s faithfulness, love for each other and passion for their craft permeates every chapter. From when Chip showed up an hour and a half late to their first date (!), to Chip forgetting a child in their new house (!!), this book is just as charming and witty as their show is. Highly recommended for those who are fans of the show.
When Breath Becomes Air
By Dr. Paul Kalanithi
In a nutshell: A young neurosurgeon faces a terminal cancer diagnosis and reflects on his own mortality before his ultimate death at 37.
This remarkably poignant true story prompted such an enormous response in me. I read it in one sitting — I couldn’t bear to put the book down without finishing Dr. Kalanithi’s stirring words. Published by his wife after his death in 2015, Dr. Kalanithi’s story hits close to home (quite literally). In the Bay Area, where I was born and raised, students are pressured to achieve, achieve, achieve. And achieve he did. Dr. Kalanithi finished two B.A’s and an M.A. at Stanford, went on to study at Cambridge, then at the Yale School of Medicine before heading back to Stanford for his neurological surgery residency. And just as he’s about to reap the benefits of all his hard work, the life he dreamed of disappeared before his eyes with his terminal cancer diagnosis.
At one point, he is angry at God: “I work my whole life to get to this point, and then you give me cancer?"
Janet Maslin of The New York Times puts it best: “[He] postponed learning how to live while pursuing his career in neurosurgery. By the time he was ready to enjoy a life outside the operating room, what he needed to learn was how to die.”
Beyond the heartbreaking, cinematic story, Dr. Kalanithi’s love for the written word shines brightly. I was taken by his poetic prose. His zest for life is apparent in every word he writes. When describing a sunrise in Lake Tahoe, he writes:
“and then we would sit and watch as the first hint of sunlight, a light tinge of day blue, would leak out of the eastern horizon, slowly erasing the stars… you could not help but feel your specklike existence against the immensity of the mountain, the earth, the universe, and yet still feel your own two feet on the talus, reaffirming your presence amid the grandeur.”
The genius of Dr. Kalanithi lies in his profound academic ambidexterity. He was fascinated by literature and philosophy — hence, his B.A. in literature and Philosophy degree at Cambridge — and wanted to connect the "language of life as experienced — of passion, of hunger, of love" to the "language of neurons, digestive tracts and heartbeats." He uses his gift in prose to pull back the curtain on the world of medicine — a world so foreign to me, yet undeniably captivating. Throughout his residency, what stood out most was the way Dr. Kalanithi sought to add empathy into his interactions with his patients. As a doctor, he wanted to meet his patients “in a space where [they were] a person, instead of a problem to be solved." He reminded readers that doctors are a part of the most intimate, vulnerable moments of a person’s life, and believed it was a honor to “take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have been disintegrated." Though excruciatingly difficult, he believed “those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.” Dr. Kalanithi was “crushed by the weight” of his patients’ burdens, all the while bearing his own cross — impending death. His eloquent thoughts and inquiries regarding what it means to live vs. simply exist are thought-provoking and heartbreakingly inciting.
Although his life was cut short, Dr. Kalanithi wanted to experience the full scope of meaning in this lifetime. When discussing parenthood, his wife asks him: “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death even more painful?” To which he responds, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?"
And indeed, it did. Dr. Kalanithi ends the book with a message for his newborn daughter, Cady:
“That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when 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.”
I encourage everyone and anyone to read this book, especially those interested in pursuing medicine. I am so grateful for Dr. Kalanithi's commitment to completing his manuscript, even during his final months on earth. This book redefined my measure of an excellent doctor — one that “takes up another’s cross” — and examined what it means to truly live and die. This book is an unbelievably moving example of God making beauty from tragedy.
The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds
By Michael Lewis
In a nutshell: Lewis (The Big Short, Moneyball) discusses the work and partnership of psychologists Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) and Amos Tversky, who questioned how humans make decisions.
To be honest, When Breath Becomes Air is a hard book to follow. And although I found The Undoing Project intriguing, I didn’t find myself as drawn into the text. In hindsight, When Breath Becomes Air was more of a launchpad for reflection, while The Undoing Project felt more like a long, but fascinating lecture. Nevertheless, Lewis does a fantastic job of explaining Kahneman and Tversky’s remarkable intellectual partnership and subsequent, brilliant work. Kahneman and Tversky as individuals are incredibly compelling men, but as partners, their relationship is a roller coaster — magic at the pinnacle but ends in what Lewis calls a “divorce.”
Nonetheless, I was blown away by Kahneman and Tversky’s insights — which are now the foundation of behavioral economics. Their theories seem so obvious when pointed out, yet hidden from those who don’t care to dig beyond the surface. Lewis weaves personal anecdotes from Kahneman and Tversky’s lives with their Nobel Prize-winning work on the science of decision making. Beyond presenting the theories alone, he examines how their groundbreaking work touches everything and everyone from a Houston Rockets scout who needs to make predictions about the future performance of athletes, to psychologists assigning soldiers to posts on the Israeli army, to diagnosing cancer.
The book discusses many of the theories and heuristics popularized by Kahneman and Tversky — from “hindsight bias” (overestimating how likely something that happened in the past was), to the “endowment effect” (giving something more value simply because you own it). And although I had learned some of these concepts in my economics courses, I never thought to examine who these ideas came from, and how they came to be.
My favorite heuristic discussed in the book was titled the “anchoring and adjustment” effect, demonstrated below:
When asked to estimate the product in five seconds, the first group was asked to estimate:
8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1
While the second group estimated:
1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6 x 7 x 8
Kahneman and Tversky found that the first group’s estimate was around 4 times larger than the second group’s estimate, simply because the first group was anchored by an “8” while the second anchored by a “1.” I was mind-blown by this! And slightly perturbed that I, too, fell victim to so many of these decision-making biases.
I’d recommend The Undoing Project for anyone interested in behavioral economics or psychology. It is a compelling, eloquently written, intellectually rich book that any decision-maker can relate to.
Thanks for reading, friends — ’til next time. :)