Review: When Breath Becomes Air

Posted on 3rd February 2016 by Sally Campbell
It is impossible to read When Breath Becomes Air and not be moved by the intimacy and eloquence of Dr.Paul Kalanithi’s writing. The book opens with the devastating image of Kalanithi, a highly intelligent and remarkable neurosurgeon, reading his own CT scans that show, inexorably, the cancer that would eventually kill him. In the pages that follow, we read Kalanithi's beautiful, moving reflections on his life, as well as candid reactions to, and explanations of, his illness and treatment. The ending is a profoundly moving epilogue written by his widow. From start to finish, When Breath Becomes Air will have a deep and lasting effect on every reader.

To say When Breath Becomes Air is about death, would be inaccurate. It is a book about an extraordinary man, Dr Paul Kalanithi; a man who was passionate about literature and existential philosophy; a man who trained for 10 years to become a neurosurgeon; and, sadly, a man who, at the age of only 37, died of lung cancer. It is, of course, written by a man facing his mortality, but that description does not capture the vitality and the grace of this book. As Atul Guwande says, When Breath Becomes Air shows us that :“the dying are the ones who have the most to teach us about life."

From his recollections in the book, Kalanithi's life reads like an exceptional, metaphysical quest; he seems to have spent every available moment searching for the meaning of life itself. At first, this quest led Kalanithi to study literature and philosophy at Stanford University, where he excelled, writing his dissertation on the writing of Walt Whitman. It was later, when approaching post graduate study, still driven by a desire to fully appreciate human existence, that Kalanithi made the radical decision to become a neurosurgeon; in doing so, he could then spend every working day with the human brain, the organ that allows us to contemplate the meaning of life in the first place. Kalanithi's was a life full of good humour and astonishing achievement, but perhaps above all else it was one driven by a fiercely inquisitive mind.

It would be remiss to write about this book without stressing just how finely it is written. Kalanithi's poetic, seamlessly flowing sentences, coupled with his striking use of literary quotation, show he never lost his love of words.  It is clear Kalanithi was a man who could achieve anything he put his mind to, which is what makes his story, and his loss, all the more poignant.

With so many books out there that tell you to feel ‘in the moment’, to ‘stress less’ and ‘enjoy life more’, nothing will inspire you to make the most of your life, worry less, be happy and show how much you love the people around you more than this illuminating book.

Here is a short, very moving video of Paul Kalanithi discussing his diagnosis and spending time with his baby daughter:


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