Publisher : Random House
Genre : Non-Fiction | Memoir
Page Count: 208
Synopsis : 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.
Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is 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.(From Goodreads)
See that quote up there? I never related to something so much in my life. That’s basically me in a nutshell. I’ve had this book on my radar since it came out but I never got around to reading it. A couple of months back, I was chatting with cw @ Read Think Ponder and she told me that I had to read it because she thought I’d love it and I want to thank her a billion times for that because I absolutely adored it. It was such a deep, meaningful, inspiring read that had me thinking and feeling things I didn’t expect.
The writing is absolutely eloquent. Dr. Kalanithi was such a talented writer. You know how I always say I’m not a non-fiction person because of writing, right? How it always feels matter-of-factly and stripped of any emotion? Well, it wasn’t the case at all here, the neurosurgeon’s writing style is breathtaking and lyrical, you can see from that his love and respect for literature, both of which he mentions a lot throughout the book while also quoting writers and philosophers that inspired him in one way or another. He was also very good at conveying a sense of what he was feeling not only while writing his memoir but also while living the events he wrote about.
This review will be more of a personal thing than a proper critical review because this book hit me harder than I expected, in more ways than I expected and impacted me more profoundly than anything I could’ve imagined. Dr. Kalanithi wrote this book after being diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer so maybe most people would expect it to be about his battle against the illness but it’s not. Not the first half of it anyway. This book tackles so many aspects of life, of his life, from his childhood up until the end.
What impacted me the most was his experiences through his medical studies, his wins, losses, struggles, and huge responsibilities. You all know by now that I am a medstudent, so I’ll forever be grateful for what this book did to me, especially because I read it while I was going through rough times. It comforted me in my questions and doubts in my own journey and it showed me that even though things don’t get easier (let’s not kid ourselves) they do get better. I laughed, I cried and I found myself nodding in approval. His journey was really an inspiring one, a motivational one even, because he had a purpose, a drive and most of all empathy that some medical students and doctors lose along the way. But he didn’t, he never did.
“Don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life—and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul—was obvious in its sacredness. Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end. The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.”
As Dr. Kalanithi goes through physical and mental changes after his diagnosis, he starts reflecting on life, its meaning, what matters and what doesn’t, with even more urgency than ever before, it becomes a kind of obsession -not in a bad way. Which made this book more about life than death, about living it to its fullest capacity, while keeping in mind that death is prominent, that it is coming. I know. We don’t like to think about that stuff but as he makes it evident in When Breath Becomes Air, it is important to register that in order to start living. As the end of the book approaches -and his death nears- you can feel a change in his writing as well, it becomes more raw and pressing (if that makes any sense), like he needed to say everything he wanted to say before he couldn’t do it anymore.
“The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out. It felt like someone had taken away my credit card and I was having to learn how to budget. You may decide you want to spend your time working as a neurosurgeon, but two months later, you may feel differently. Two months after that, you may want to learn to play the saxophone or devote yourself to the church. Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.”
The epilogue was written by his wife after his death and it was such a beautiful and hopeful addition to the book, an outsider’s look on what we read about throughout the book as well as what life was like afterwards, how important family was to him and to his wife and baby daughter after he was gone. Her contribution was so touching and emotional, her love for him really bled through the pages.
“For much of his life, Paul wondered about death -and whether he could face it with integrity. In the end, the answer was yes. I was his wife and a witness.
Like I said, as a medical student, I have a very deep appreciation for this book, it quickly became my favorite non-fiction as well as one of my favorite books of all time. But I truly believe that this is a book that everyone should read, because each person can relate to it to some extent, some parts of it go beyond the illness, or ever beyond his experiences as a neurosurgeon. They’re simply human, and profoundly humbling.
That’s it until next time.
Did you read When Breath Becomes Air? If so, what did you think?
Hope you enjoyed, write to you soon.