When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air
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When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi

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 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.

Review

This is a short but profoundly moving and powerful book. Kalanithi, a young and brilliant neurosurgeon, is confronted by what proves to be his own terminal cancer. In his undergraduate days he had contemplated a career as a writer and had completed a degree in English Literature; for Kalanithi literature ‘illuminated another’s experience … and provided the richest material for moral reflection.’ However, it was science and medicine that won him over.

We are very fortunate that, in his last few years, months and days, he recorded the passage of his life and the emotions he confronted as he became aware his life was imminently finite. He wrote to a friend that the good news was that he’d survived a Keats and a couple of Brontës.

This is, in some ways, an easy book to read; Kalanithi’s skill as a storyteller jumps off the page. The first half is the account of how a good, intelligent young man conducted his early life and made choices about who and what he was going to be. This alone would make the book stand out. But it is the second half when he describes the passage of his illness and its effect on him both physically and mentally that is profoundly harrowing yet uplifting. It is his great skill as a writer that raises this book from just a tragic tale to one that has lessons and meaning for us all.


Mark Rubbo is the Managing Director of Readings.

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