Reading & Riding / by Madeleine Riley

Readers, today I want to share something a little different.

If you follow me on Instagram, you'll know that I recently got engaged. My (now) fiancé, Brenden, and I have been together for over seven years, since our senior year in high school. In those years, we've grown up together. I love him for many reasons, but overall he's just a really good human. He's caring, ambitious, and funny. He's a great cook and indulges me when I come home with armfuls of new plants and books, even though our apartment is overflowing with both. He's the reason why Top Shelf Text exists -- in our junior year of college, it was his suggestion that I start a blog about books, so I have him to (partially) thank for this great community of readers.


This year, Brenden is embarking on his third ride with his company team for the Pan Mass Challenge.

The PMC is a 2-day, 190 mile bike ride across the state of Massachusetts that raises money for life-saving cancer research and treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Since its founding in 1980, the PMC has worked to bring together riders and sponsors to provide Dana-Farber's doctors and researchers with the necessary resources to discover cures for all cancers. In 2017 alone, the PMC raised $51 million dollars towards cancer research. (If you want to read more specifics about that money and where it goes, see here.) 

The PMC is a big deal in our household. Brenden's training schedule is our first priority in the summer, and the emotional impact of the ride itself is incredible. Cancer is a looming presence in our society. It touches everyone, whether through personal experience or through friends and family. We've both experienced loss at the hands of cancer, and we both believe that there is still hope for a cure.

As we approach the 100 mile mark, we ride over a bridge and are greeted by images of people directly impacted by the foundation. They are cancer survivors and those who have passed. We read their names aloud as we ride, as an act of remembrance. It is a deeply meaningful moment for our team.
— Brenden, On the Experience of the PMC

This year, I want to help make a bigger impact by bringing this fundraiser to you, readers. I'm asking that you consider donating to the PMC to support research for curing all cancers. You can do that by clicking here to donate directly to Brenden's team.

If you choose to donate, please leave your Instagram handle or e-mail address in the note section of your donation. Make sure to also check "show my name" and "show note" so that I can get in touch with you to say thank you. If you choose to donate any amount, I would like to send you a TST bookmark (featuring one of my favorite quotes in literature) as a small token of thanks, for being part of the TST community and for being a good human being.


Read-Along with Me

In addition to donating, this year I'll be reading two books about cancer and medicine in the month of July. If you're interested, you're welcome to join me for a read-along, using the hashtag #readandridePMC. 

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When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “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.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.

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Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming the dangers of childbirth, injury, and disease from harrowing to manageable. But when it comes to the inescapable realities of aging and death, what medicine can do often runs counter to what it should.

Through eye-opening research and gripping stories of his own patients and family, Gawande reveals the suffering this dynamic has produced. Nursing homes, devoted above all to safety, battle with residents over the food they are allowed to eat and the choices they are allowed to make. Doctors, uncomfortable discussing patients' anxieties about death, fall back on false hopes and treatments that are actually shortening lives instead of improving them.

In his bestselling books, Atul Gawande, a practicing surgeon, has fearlessly revealed the struggles of his profession. Now he examines its ultimate limitations and failures-in his own practices as well as others'-as life draws to a close. Riveting, honest, and humane, Being Mortal shows how the ultimate goal is not a good death but a good life-all the way to the very end.


I'll host a discussion on these two reads on August 4th & 5th, the same weekend of the PMC ride this year. I'd love to have you read along and discuss with me.

Thank you for supporting those impacted by cancer, and for those fighting to eradicate it.