At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live.
When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student asking what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and a new father.
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away?
Paul Kalanithi died while working on this profoundly moving book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.
I’ve read some of the other reviews of this book and really wonder if they read the same book as me. If you’re looking for a misery memoir, a warts and all revelation of how harrowing it is to go through cancer and all that entails, then this isn’t for you. Those books have their place – my mother died from cancer and it was helpful sometimes to read other people’s accounts and to know that they were feeling as I did. But I wish I’d had this book back then.
Because this is more than a memoir or an account of illness and death. The author doesn’t list in too great detail what happens to him because it’s not supposed to be about that (which is what I think a few of the other reviewers have missed). This is about a man who, before he knew he was ill, strove in his studies and in his work to get at the meaning of life, at what it means to be human, and what it means to die. And then, somewhat ironically, just at the brink of achieving one of his goals in life, he was diagnosed with lung cancer – cancer that killed him at the age of thirty-seven.
A brilliant, eloquent and sensitive man, Paul Kalanithi continued to strive throughout his illness, to find meaning in what life meant, what made it worthwhile, and to understand when it was enough, when it was time to stop. This is what he had always wanted to do for his patients and this was how he lived his last days.
A really unusual and beautiful book. I was sobbing at the end – and any book that can cause such a powerful reaction is something very special indeed.
Thanks to NetGalley for providing a free review copy.