Sumit was in the mood for some poignant novels, the saddest one he has ever read being A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry but the book he got to the BYOB Party was the memoir Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing.

“What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.” This is how Laing talks about the emotion that most of us are ashamed of. Loneliness, unlike introversion and aloneness, is a lack, a void that needs to be filled. Laing explores how life in a new city forced her into a self-imposed loneliness that technology only widened.  It was art that helped her to capture her emotion and celebrate it.

“Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.”

Since the book talks about art, Sumit enjoyed going to the internet to see the paintings that she referred to. Emotions can be rendered in words and with the palette as well.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

A discussion ensued about terribly moving books like The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and how solitude, contrary to loneliness, provides the fuel for the self-churning that results in great works of art, scientific innovation and philosophical insights.

Aravindh talked about an extremely moving book called When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. The saddest part of the book for Aravindh was that this was the only book of the lucid neurosurgeon that he would ever read. The book is memoir and relates the tale of a life of inquiry cut short by inoperable lung cancer.

“While all doctors treat diseases, neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity: every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of our selves, and every conversation with a patient undergoing brain surgery cannot help but confront this fact. In addition, to the patient and family, the brain surgery is usually the most dramatic event they have ever faced and, as such, has the impact of any major life event. At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living. Would you trade your ability – or your mother’s – to talk for a few extra months of mute life? The expansion of your visual blind spot in exchange for eliminating the small possibility of a fatal brain hemorrhage? Your right hand’s function to stop seizures? How much neurologic suffering would you let your child endure before saying that death is preferable? Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?”

The questions that Kalanithi asks make the reader stop for a moment and evaluate his or her own life, if only for a fleeting moment. Other books that deal with these profound questions include Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture and Christopher Hitchen’s Mortality.

More poignant books in Part 4.