Review: When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi)


Genre: Memoir, Non-Fiction
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: January 19, 2016
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal
Page Count: 208
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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.


“Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.”  

When Breath Becomes Air is a beautiful memoir of the life lived and experienced by Paul Kalanithi who has the wonderful insight to understand and find the meaning between life and death, and what makes it worthwhile. No matter how short one’s life is, he makes us believe that it is meaningful if you find something that drives you to understand the world you live in, and help those around you.

To be honest, I’ve never been much interested in memoirs from the medical background. I was afraid the medical jargon or complicated medical world would turn me off from wanting to learn more about the field. I’ve always thought the medical profession to be overrated here in Malaysia. But it wasn’t until I chatted to a friend who happens to be a medical graduate that shone some light on the work of doctors do I begin to consider picking this book up, and seeing the medical world with fresh eyes.

Kalanithi talks about his life growing up in Arizona, his love for both literature and biology which led him to obtain double degrees in both of these field. His love for neurosurgery and how the brain affects how we face life is pretty adamant in this book. You can’t help but to be at awe at his brilliance and drive in being the best version of himself as a doctor and husband. I was constantly impressed with how resilient he was in completing his residency and his inspiration to become a better doctor to his patients. I know how some doctors treat patients with disregard and as paperwork, but Kalanithi explains the need to treat his patients like human beings, offering help to the victims and families on how to move forward in life. Which is what made him, and subsequently this book, a joy to read and know about.

His approach to the medical world and his observations of the meaning of life will leave you pondering on how to approach yours. We are all given a limited time on earth, and for Kalanithi who died at the young age of 36, he has shown us that it’s not the amount of years lived but rather the amount of life lived within those given years.

I’ve enjoyed this book immensely solely for his love of medicine and having the strength to traverse difficult roads in his life after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He faces his mortality with dignity and the belief that you can still be the best version of you no matter what disaster (subjective to perception by the inflicted) you’re faced with. I found his ambitions to become a renowned neurosurgeon and build a family highly relatable as I’ve just started work and am thinking of what I want in the future.

“Don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life—and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul—was obvious in its sacredness. Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end. The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.”

I felt very inspired from reading this book, knowing how early a wonderful life with so many potential could end, yet there is still so many things you can do to make your remaining time worthwhile.

This book might not be for everyone, I admit. The whole book questions his entire existence and his profession in light of his health issues. It gets deep, on a whole new level, and this book may be upsetting for those who have family members or friends that lived with or died from cancer. On top of that, the medical jargons and complicated scientific terms may put you off. I’m pretty lucky because I studied science and a bit of biology back in school but for non-science readers, my advice would be to just read it as it is. Let the words flow through you and enjoy the message brought by Kalanithi about the wonder of our mortality. And I’m sure you’ll enjoy it just the same 🙂

“There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.”

I do not know if this review does this book any justice or even convinces you to pick it up, but out of all the memoirs I have read, I’m finding When Breath Becomes Air is quickly becoming a favourite. I hope you pick this up if you have it in your TBR or see it in your local bookstore. And I hope it changed the way you view life as it did for me…

RATING: ★★★★★


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