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 making a living treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air, which features a Foreword by Dr. Abraham Verghese and an Epilogue by Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy, 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 young neurosurgeon at Stanford, guiding patients toward a deeper understanding of death and illness, and finally into a patient and a new father to a baby girl, 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 mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.
I don’t often read much non-fiction, but I’d been wanting to read this since it’s release and took the opportunity when the publisher sent me a reading copy, and I’m so glad I did!
It was such a moving and intriguing read, and also rather rewarding. Kalanithi is such an inspiration, not only as an excellent surgeon, but just as a human being. His spirit and determination, and love for other people in general shine through in his writing.
I particularly loved the references to literary works throughout the book, which stem from his personal love and study of literature before he got into the field of medicine, and how they inspired him in his every day life at home and work.
For me, the last section written by his wife, Lucy, was the most moving, and my favourite part of the book. It was a wonderful dedication to her husband, and concluded the book brilliantly.
I only wish I could’ve understood a bit more of the medical jargon – it would have made the reading experience a bit more fluid for me, but this by no means took anything away for me, it would have simply enhanced my understanding of his life and profession.
If more non-fiction and biographies were written like this, I’d definitely read them more frequently! But this did make a nice change in my reading routine, and I’m very glad I decided to pick it up.
View When Breath Becomes Air on Goodreads