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 read When Breath Becomes air, last month after going through a really depressing reading slump where picking up a book just seemed like a chore to me *I know* but I forced myself to do quite a large amazon order with books from an array of different genres and somehow found myself ordering one from the Science/Medical genre as neuroscience was something that has always interested me.
When I first received my order and saw When breath becomes air in the flesh, I instantly felt drawn to it and made the decision to start reading it straightaway- a decision that has turned out to be one of the better ones I have made this year.
The book is a powerful, jaw dropping and emotionally driven novel that focuses on the life of a neurologist who is extremely academic and gives a eye opening insight into how Paul’s life spiralled out of control after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. However, despite that I feel that it inaccurate to say that his autobiography places much emphasis on death, no it is more about the importance of life and making the most of it.
“To begin with — or, maybe, to end with –I got to know Paul only after his death. I came to know him most intimately when he’d ceased to be.” (Abraham Verghese)
Throughout the book, Paul focuses a lot on literature and the impact it had on life. He gives us an insight into his time studying it at Stanford and how his thesis was influenced by his two passions- neuroscience and literature. Paul firmly believed that literature and neuroscience went hand in hand and he does best to remind you of that throughout.
“I was searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death, to find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again. The privilege of direct experience had led me away from literary and academic work, yet now I felt that to understand my own experiences, I would have to translate them back into language. Hemingway described his process in similar terms: acquiring rich experiences, then retreating to cogitate and write about them. I needed words to go forward”
One of the highlights of this book is the end note from his wife Lucy who offers what can only be described as an empowering monologue about her husband and how she lives on without him, as well her experience of bringing up their daughter who was robbed of ever knowing her remarkable father.
“The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?”
When you first hear that this book is about cancer it may deter you from reading it as it can at times be a very heavy and emotional story, do not read this book because it is about cancer. Read it because it will open your eyes to the importance of living and offer a new perspective on how you view science, especially if you are a novice like me and don’t know much about it.
I can’t say that this book won’t make you shed tears, because if you are as emotional as me, you will cry at some point but please add this book to your TBR list as I can firmly promise you will not regret it.
Would you recommend it to a friend?