Saturday, July 23, 2016

Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

"When Breath Becomes Air" by Paul Kalanithi
First published in 2016
228 pages
My rating: 5 out of 5
Image from Goodreads

The Short Of It:
I recommend this memoir to everyone. Written by a courageous, compassionate and brilliant neurosurgeon, it's about doctors, it's about dying, and it's about the quest to discover what makes a life meaningful. Paul had firsthand experience with all those things because, at just 36, he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.

The Long Of It:
Like most readers, I had never heard of Paul Kalanithi until I picked up his posthumously published memoir, but now I will never forget him.

Paul didn't set out to become a doctor; his bachelor's degrees were in English lit and human biology. But life pulled him in the direction of his family's legacy, and he made the decision to attend medical school. Then -- because he wanted to challenge himself and he sought the best opportunity to confront philosophical questions about death and what gives life meaning -- he pursued the twin fields of neurosurgery and neuroscience.

At 36, Paul was quickly approaching a peak in his career -- graduation from the neurosurgery resident program at Stanford -- when, despite exercising regularly and never smoking, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. "When Breath Becomes Air" was composed as Paul was dying, and it's about discovering what matters in life, it's about bravely making peace with death, it's about the role switch from doctor to patient, and it's also about Paul's journey to become the best physician he could be.

I'm not a crier, but I held back tears as I read the conclusion of "When Breath Becomes Air," mourning the loss of a such a great and brilliant man with so much potential to actually change the world, in immediate ways as a compassionate and devoted physician, husband and father, and on a global scale as a brilliant scientist and researcher.

Every doctor should read this book as an example of how to achieve excellence in not only the medical aspect of the field but, as Paul says, the human relationality aspect. He was devoted to slowing down, listening to his patients and treating them emotionally as well as physically and always with compassion, and seeing them as human beings instead of problems to be solved. "Here we are together," he writes, "and here are the ways through -- I promise to guide you as best I can to the other side."

Every person should read this book because, there's no way around it, we're all going to die. It's the nature of life. And Paul shows us how to meet death with respect and bravery instead of fear and devastation. He was a truly Great Man with important ideas -- a thinker, a philosopher, a man constantly pondering the human condition -- and through his chosen profession he impacted so many lives.

"When Breath Becomes Air" is not a happy book, but it has a positive and inspirational message, as well as an eye-opening glimpse into the grueling life of a doctor in the 21st century. I urge you to get to know this wonderful man through his elegant writing.


  1. Totally agree with all of this. I am so glad I read this one. I definitely had tears at a couple of points. Great review!

    1. Thanks, Grace! It was a bit hard to read at times, but so well done.

    2. Thanks, Grace! It was a bit hard to read at times, but so well done.

    3. Thanks, Grace! It was a bit hard to read at times, but so well done.

  2. I really need to read this one, but still not sure. It's been recommended by everyone whose opinion I respect.

    I only hesitate because my husband had 2 cancer operations, stage 3, two & half years ago. He's been vigilant about going to his oncologist and having his tests every 3 months, then 6 months... he's clear now and healthy but it lurks there in the background, that tiny possibility... anyway, don't want to get morbid, of course we all go, but hopefully later rather than sooner.

    My hubs is older than me, and I'm older than you, so maybe it is harder to read this type of title at a certain age, because it reminds us of what we try so hard to forget. Thanks for a great review-- food for thought.

    1. Oh, Rita, I'm so sad to hear about your husband. It's got to be so hard having that lingering fear in the back of your mind always.

      I know it's not the same thing, but our sweet boxer dog, Conan (whom we treated like a child and who was on the receiving end of all our nurturing/parental instincts) passed away from lymphoma 2 1/2 years ago at just 7 1/2 years old. I've only recently been able to start reading books involving dogs again, so I understand completely about topics hitting too close to home.

      On the other hand, if you're able to stomach it, I hope you'll find this book to be an enlightening and, overall, hopeful read. The author truly is an inspiration when it comes to living a meaningful life -- and discovering what makes each of our lives meaningful to US, whether we have 60 days or 60 years left.

  3. Wow! Sounds good. I'll have to keep an eye out for it!

    1. I hope you find it as impactful as I did, Kaylee! The subject matter isn't exactly lighthearted, but I think it's an important book.


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