When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi
For readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, a profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir by a young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis who attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?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 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 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. “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 death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.Advance praise for When Breath Becomes Air“[When Breath Becomes Air] split my head open with its beauty.”—Cheryl Strayed“Rattling, heartbreaking, and ultimately beautiful, the too-young Dr. Kalanithi’s memoir is proof that the dying are the ones who have the most to teach us about life.”—Atul Gawande“Those of us who never met Paul Kalanithi will both mourn his death and benefit from his life. This is one of a handful of books I consider to be a universal donor—I would recommend it to anyone, everyone.”—Ann Patchett“Inspiring . . . This deeply moving memoir reveals how much can be achieved through service and gratitude when a life is courageously and resiliently lived.”—Publishers Weekly “Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review) “This eloquent, heartfelt meditation on the choices that make live worth living, even as death looms, will prompt readers to contemplate their own values and mortality.”—Booklist “Every doctor should read this book—written by a member of our own tribe, it helps us understand and overcome the barriers we all erect between ourselves and our patients as soon as we are out of medical school.”—Henry Marsh, author of Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery“A tremendous book, crackling with life, animated by wonder and by the question of how we should live. Paul Kalanithi lived and died in the pursuit of excellence, and by this testimonial, he achieved it.”—Gavin Francis, author of Adventures in Human Being

Reviews

Reviewed: 2018-10-16

 

 

Reviewed: 2018-01-12
The prologue started out good. He introduced us to his life and what ultimately his ending would be, but then the book started to sound like a thesis for philosophy and neurology. He stepped away from telling us what was happening in his life and moved toward theorizing about life. It wasn’t what I expected.
Reviewed: 2017-07-26
I love the writing.
I loved what the book was about.
I loved the questions it asked.

*** spoiler alert ***



However the ending of Paul's story took me a little by surprise.
I was listening to the audiobook and was surprised when his story ended with still 30-40 mins left. I feel bad even writing this because hey the guy was terminally ill while writing the book. Nonetheless, the writer is making a promise to the reader. The book started off with Paul asking existential questions such as "what is a meaningful life" or "what is a life worth living" and then proceeds to take us on his journey through teen years, college, and medicine. The journey is introspective, heartfelt, intellectual, deep .... However the story is cut short due to the author's rapid decline in his final months. The questions Pauls asks are ones each person has to find their own answers too, however I would have really liked to hear his conclusions for his life. The epilogue which was done by his wife, Lucy, attempts to provide some of these answers but I still would have liked to hear it in Paul's eloquent voice. So maybe I'm not disappointed in the book but just a bit sad.
Skip the Foreword.
Reviewed: 2017-01-02
I feel really bad rating it this way. It's really a 2.5. I had recently read this would be a great companion read to 'Being Mortal' and that it didn't matter in what order I read them in. I didn't care for 'Mortal' and hoped this would be better. Unfortunately not and while I know this is my opinion, I just didn't understand the love and hype for this book either.
 
Author Kalanithi was perhaps at the height (or at least close to it) of his career, when he gets the the devastating diagnosis that he has cancer. This is mostly his story, as the doctor becomes the patient and goes through what he had been on the other side of. We get an overview of his early life, education, then his time as a young doctor and his career before the diagnosis, the diagnosis, treatment and then an epilogue by his wife (this shouldn't be a spoiler since it's all over the promotional materials).
 
Initially I was really intrigued and found the book was moving at a pretty good clip when looking at his parents, the author's early life, Kalanithi's time in med school and as a doctor, etc. Then the book seems to slow down and it's patient after patient. Some of the stories are sad and moving, others just seem a bit like...filler, honestly. Or a chance for the author to talk about some poet or author or thinker.
 
However something about the writing is very "empty." While it was well-written, other reviews do acknowledge it seems "clinical" or "sterile" and I have to agree. Like 'Mortal' I found I just could not connect with the text. To be fair I wonder if it's because both books deal with uncomfortable topics but I've plowed through books on rape and violence recently so I'm not sure that's it either.
 
Other criticisms I've found to be true: this follows the story of how someone who can afford good medical care dies. Which makes his life no less meaningful than someone else who can't, but it's worth remembering there are many who probably couldn't afford to even consider the options the author could and their stories will never be told. Of course this is in no way the author or his family's fault, but it is something worth keeping in mind, especially after reading 'Being Mortal'.
 
Perhaps, like 'Mortal' I read this at the wrong time (is there ever a "right" time for these kinds of books?). Yet I can't really get on the bandwagon, although this is definitely a case where I feel really bad that I couldn't like it more. Borrowed from the library and that's how I'd recommend it.
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