When Breath Becomes Air, a Memoir by Paul Kalanithi | A Review

when breath becomes air, a memoirTHE NEW YORK TIMES NUMBER ONE BESTSELLER

‘Finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option…Unmissable’ New York Times

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live.

When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student asking what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and a new father.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away?

Paul Kalanithi died while working on this profoundly moving book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.


Book Details:
  When Breath Becomes Air

Author: Paul Kalanithi
Genre: Memoir
Publisher:  Vintage Digital
Published: February 4, 2016
Format: Kindle edition, 258 pages
ASIN: B0165X8WN2
Source: Purchased
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Amid the tragedies and failures, I feared I was losing sight of the singular importance of human relationships, not between patients and their families but between doctor and patient. Technical excellence was not enough. As a resident, my highest ideal was not saving lives—everyone dies eventually—but guiding a patient or family to an understanding of death or illness. (Paul Kalanithi, Loc. 836; emphasis mine)

My Thoughts

Paul Kalinithi was a lover of many things. Among the loves in his life were his wife, Lucy, and daughter, Cady; the patients he treated as a neurosurgeon and the people he worked alongside; his extended family; and words. Kalanithi’s love of words is what makes his memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, so special.

Kalanithi’s path didn’t always point toward medicine. There was a time when he wanted to be a writer. As we all know, circumstances and life can change what we believe is our goal one day by the time the hands on the clock circle 24 hours. And so it was for Paul Kalanithi.

On his way to completing his residency in neurosurgery, he and his wife, also a physician, are startled with Kalanithi’s diagnosis of lung cancer. However, the disease itself is not the focus of this memoir. Kalanithi shares with us the transitions he felt growing inside himself as a husband, father, and yes, physician as he journeyed through his own surgeries and treatments. It was as if he had dual vision seeing everything through the eyes of a physician and a patient.

Lyrically written with philosophical thematics, Kalanithi grasps the changing days of his life with both hands and shifts his focus from professional to familial. As a patient being treated by other physicians, his insights into what is important about treating his patients becomes a similar focus for his family life. This is what he hopes to pass along to his readers.

Not to read Kalanithi’s memoir is a loss, in my opinion, for those who pass it by. Passages include sadness, tragedy, and loss of various kinds. Yet, Kalanithi also shows us wisdom, wit, and beautiful language in telling his story. I highly recommend

I highly recommend this memoir to those who enjoy reading the genre, especially for those interested in writing memoir, and to those who are either beginning a similar journey or have someone in their lives who is.

Rating: 5-stars


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Author Bio

Author Paul KalanithiPaul Kalanithi, M.D., was a neurosurgeon and writer. Paul grew up in Kingman, Arizona, before attending Stanford University, from which he graduated in 2000 with a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature and a B.A. in Human Biology. He earned an M.Phil. in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine from the University of Cambridge before attending medical school. In 2007, Paul graduated cum laude from the Yale School of Medicine, winning the Lewis H. Nahum Prize for outstanding research and membership in the Alpha Omega Alpha medical honor society. He returned to Stanford for residency training in Neurological Surgery and a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience, during which he authored over twenty scientific publications and received the American Academy of Neurological Surgery’s highest award for research.

Paul’s reflections on doctoring and illness – he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in 2013, though he never smoked – have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Paris Review Daily, in addition to interviews in academic settings and media outlets such as MSNBC. Paul completed neurosurgery residency in 2014. Paul died in March, 2015, while working on When Breath Becomes Air, 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. He is survived by his wife Lucy and their daughter Cady.

  • Sherrey, this is a book I’ve now read three times. It will go onto a small stack to re-read often for however many days I have left on this beautiful earth with those God has given me to love. Such bravery and beauty. Such a testimony to the power of love beyond the material world. Thank you for this review.

    • Shirley, I just watched a rerun of the interview with Paul Kalanithi on PBS’s Frontline last week. What an amazing individual this young man is! Definitely, he has written a book to be often read. I’ve actually been pondering doing just that as I sit here bored and frustrated with still unresolved health issues. Perhaps his loving approach to much more serious conditions than mine will give me hope and courage.

  • KathyPooler

    Beautiful review, Sherry. This is a stunning memoir that will stay with you longer after you read it.

    • Kathleen, thanks for your gracious comments. I know this is a book I’ll never forget reading.

  • Marian Beaman

    Like you I have just read and reviewed this book too. Because I raved about it, Cliff “read” it as an audio book – a brave departure from his usual spy thrillers.

    I affirm all that you say in this fine review and agree with Ann Patchett who comments in a blurb: “This is one of a handful of books I consider to be a universal donor—I would recommend it to anyone, everyone.”

    • Hi Marian! So glad you too enjoyed this book. Even better that your raving got Cliff to “read it.” Bob used to be into spy thrillers but he has moved to reading more nonfiction recently. I too agree with Patchett’s blurb. Loved her use of the words “universal donor.”

  • Joan Z Rough

    When Breath Becomes Air, is a fabulous read! Thanks Sherrey for this great review.

    • Joan, fabulous is the right word for this book. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.