Book reviews · V/Blogs

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Beautifully written. Incredibly moving. Visceral and heartfelt. Tragic. Inspiring.

These are just some words that immediately come to mind if you ask me about my recent read. When Breath Becomes Air is a masterpiece that grapples with the reality of death. If you are like me and are encountering this book for the first time, you would see the description at the back cover and go into your reading somehow prepared for the worst–that this is Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s memoir and that he passed away after having succumbed to stage IV lung cancer in March 2015.

But as you go through Dr. Paul’s narration of events, the way he describes his own vulnerabilities, how he strived to fight his illness, to maintain his identity as a talented and brilliant neurosurgeon and neuroscientist, as he worked for his ambitions and dreams, you would also find that nothing–even a disclaimer at the back cover–would ever prepare you for the depth of loss and death.

At what seemed to be the pinnacle of his career, having only less than a year left of his residency, with incredible opportunities and job prospects awaiting, Dr. Paul received his life-altering diagnosis. He describes it so clearly, the moment when his entire life changed. In fact, he said it was not only life-altering, but life-shattering. That, as a doctor, he has also delivered similar news to his patient’s families many times before but has never really thought about the news other than what his medical practice has taught him. Diagnosed with a terminal illness at just thirty-six, Dr. Paul’s life instantly transformed from that of a doctor to a patient.

What is most notable about the entire biography for me was learning about Dr. Paul’s life after he received his diagnosis. It takes incredible courage and faith to face death the way he did. I know he has the medical background and the support and resources required to manage his cancer, but with terminal illness no one can really be sure about anything. Not about one’s life span. Not about how the treatments will be received by the body. And certainly, not about the possibility of a complete recovery or a possible relapse. Despite the uncertainties and the sharp reality that is borrowed time, Dr. Paul gives us an honest and visceral account of his life and what it means to live a life worth living even in the face of death.

A foreword by his colleague, Abraham Verghese, would give readers an insight about where we stand as individuals who are now reading about Dr. Paul’s work. We may not have met Dr. Paul in person, but we can infer that he is someone determined to impact change in the lives of others. Also, the afterword written by his bereaved wife, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, just broke my heart. I can feel her pain but, at the same time, sense her indomitable strength and deep, unconditional love for her late husband.

I give this book 4.5 stars. I definitely agree with the reviews written for this book. That it’s unforgettable, relatable, and a humbling experience altogether. It will allow you to see the fragility of life, the shortness of time, the importance of living.

There are moments in our lives when we feel like we have all the time in the world. Perhaps, for example, we would forego spending time with loved ones because an important work function has come up. Maybe we would refuse to do the things we are passionate about because we are so focused on earning money at present. Maybe we would put priority on our prides and let fights and arguments with loved ones stew for weeks or months thinking we would just settle things later on. But if you think about it, there’s really no knowing what will happen next: when you can spend time with your loved ones, or cultivate your passions and interests, or reconcile and make amends. There’s no time more certain than now.

I know I say this a lot of times, but I am grateful I came across this book. It was not really in my list but I stumbled upon a copy one afternoon when I was browsing for gifts. I guess, in a way, this is like a gift I can give to myself–reading a book that has given me more than what I could ask for: real life learnings and realizations that will inspire me and the people around me to live a life worth living.

  • Title: When Breath Becomes Air
  • Author: Paul Kalanithi
  • Year published: 2017
  • Publisher: Random House
  • Total number of pages: 229
  • ISBN-13: 978-0-399-59040-5


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