Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

Friday 3 February 2017 by

When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi, Vintage Publishing, Book, Reading

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Published by Vintage Publishing

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 naive 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. 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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This book should come with a warning; don’t read it in public. You will cry. Kalanithi’s writing is exquisite. He writes with a stripped back honesty, a certain separation that makes it feel impersonal, and yet you never quite forget that it’s happening to him.

Kalanithi is one of those people with a great mind. His insatiable curiosity is catching – I might not be a brain surgeon, but something about this makes me as curious about the human brain as he is. But it’s the unique perspective he has – literature, science, religion – that makes his story all the more fascinating. This is like having the most interesting dinner guests you’ve ever discovered, all in one book.

But ultimately, When Breath Becomes Air is heartbreaking. It’s a eulogy rather than a prologue. This great mind, this curiosity, is not continuing. He has not gone on to make the scientific discoveries he wanted to. But he has made a difference, with this book. Its honesty is enlightening, refreshing, and reassuring. As I said before, though, please don’t read this in public, because you will end up crying. In fact, it’s the postscript from Kalanithi’s wife that makes it all the harder to read.

This is the book that needed to be written, but is so hard to read. It’s emotional and full of passion and curiosity, yet sparse – it reminds me of Hemingway’s cleanliness with words, displaying a love of literature without pandering to it. Kalanithi’s writing is exceptional, and this is a beautiful memoir.

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