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  • Esther Good

Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Updated: Jan 24

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

I was first introduced to Paul Kalanithi when an essay he wrote and a the video below were making the rounds on Facebook. As a 6th year neurosurgery resident, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and speaks about what it means to be dying.  He passed away in 2015. In his memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, which was published posthumously, Kalanithi looks back on his life-long search to understand what gives life meaning.  The question was first sparked through his childhood love of literature, and he continued to pursue it in neurosurgery—what sacrifices of brain function are worth it to preserve life?

His writing is elegant and thoughtful, and his stories are interesting.  It’s perhaps not a ground-breaking book, but it spoke to me profoundly.  I think hearing his story while he was alive, and reading it again after his death made the book especially meaningful.  Also, as I look forward to studying medicine in the near future, his path to and through the study of medicine resonated with me.  But I think most significantly, I identified with the soul-searching questions he asked as he faced the end of life at the peak of his “potential”—the same questions I faced when I lost a dear friend shortly after his college graduation.

I’ll offer one suggestion to those picking up this book for the first time: read the forward and the epilogue first.  I think Kalanithi’s own final words are so profound, and bookend his story so well, that they deserve to be read last.

Read this if:

  1. You want to read a poignant memoir by a thoughtful writer.

  2. You like to explore the complexities of life and death.

  3. You’re interested in Medicine and literature.

Favorite Quotes:

“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”

― Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

“’Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?’ she asked. ‘Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?’ ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it did?’ I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”

― Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

― Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

“That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

― Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air



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