When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir telling the story of Paul Kalanithi, who at 36 and on the verge of completing an intensive decade of neurosurgeon training, was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. We see Kalanithi’s transition from being a doctor to a patient and all that this entails, as he questions what makes life meaningful in the face of death. This book is profoundly moving and exquisitely observed and it was a truly remarkable reading experience. It was both intelligent and touching, and I recommend it to everyone.
We meet Kalanithi as an incredibly intelligent young man as he discovered what he wanted to dedicate his life’s work to. From being a student and ever since, Kalanithi had a fixation with what makes a meaningful life, the book detailing his exploration of literature, biology and morality, and where they all fit together. Eventually this interest leads Kalanithi to become a neurosurgeon, working on the brain – the core of human identity. I found this philosophical aspect of the book particularity fascinating, offering insight into a topic I, myself, am particularly interested in.
Kalanithi was clearly extremely hardworking and passionate about his work as a neurosurgeon and what it meant for himself and others, and this clearly came across in his writing. Details of his work are hard-hitting but fascinating, and the special relationship between doctor and patient is a particularly interesting theme throughout. In the second half of the book, post-diagnosis, Kalanithi does not shy away from the horrors of the situation, and the impact that the cancer had on his physical, intellectual and emotional self. Kalanithi discusses how he was forced to contemplate his mortality and his vocation that meant a great deal to him. He also openly discusses the impact it had on his marriage and other relationships with family and friends, which I found to be extremely raw and touching.
This book was truly inspiring. It emphasised the importance of living a meaningful life – in whatever way that may be, to you – no matter how much time you have left. Kalanithi’s positivity was admirable. Furthermore, the memoir was written in a plain but extremely well executed way, with no trace of self-pity or exaggeration. Kalanithi presented a thought provoking and remarkably interesting book, that I think carries import messages that anyone could learn from.
This book had a great impact on me and will stay with me for a long time. Kalanithi was clearly a thoughtful and compassionate man, and the part of his life he decided to share was inspiring. This was a heartbreaking but more so inspiring read, that was ultimately one of the most beautiful things I have read in a long time.