When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
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.
At it’s core When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir, but it’s also so much more than that. It’s one man’s existential crisis in the face of death. And I think that’s why it’s so popular right now. The thoughts Paul Kalanithi shares in this book are universal. We all know we’re going to die, but we don’t KNOW it until something like cancer enters our lives.
In the first part of this book, Paul recounts his educational experience starting as a young man all the way through medical school and his training as a neurosurgical resident. I found his stories about medical school fascinating since I considered being a doctor until the end of college. Paul had always had a quest to understand death, but when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in his final year of residency, that quest became personal.
The second part of the book chronicles his experiences and decisions after his initial treatment. His career path and life plans were greatly impacted by the knowledge that his life wouldn’t be as long as he’d originally expected. Reading about the things that suddenly became more important to him was very interesting.
This book is fairly short, and it is somewhat technical at times because it written by a doctor. But the writing is beautiful. It worked so well as an audiobook. I think anyone could relate to this story. I don’t often like memoirs, but this book was very well written, very well organized, and definitely worth reading.
My Rating: 4 Stars
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