“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air1I tend to stay away from books about death, dying, sickness, leaving, abandonment. I don’t see it as me having a problem with others leaving or the permanence of a person who is gone, but maybe it is.

I grew up on a small island with my extended family. My parents were always away. They would visit or I would visit them; but no matter how long those visits were, they always seemed short to me. I hated saying goodbye and I still do.

Earlier in the year, Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air was one of the most popular books. The buzz caught my interest and made me want to read it, but when I heard it’s about the author’s battle with cancer and that he later died, I procrastinated on picking up the book. Heavy emotions. I didn’t want to deal with it. I didn’t want to cry. Life was heavy enough without the fall of my tears adding to it. So I avoided the book.

I later used the Try a Chapter Tag to make me read When Breath Becomes Air. I read its foreword and was unimpressed, but the prologue left me teary eyed and wanting to hear more from Kalanithi.

I was immediately impressed and surprised at how he wrote the book. His writing is impeccable and precise. I admired that. And though this should have been expected, I was surprised at how analytically he wrote his story. I expected a story that would drag the emotions out of me and make me sorrowful or a bit melancholy. Instead, I was pensive, curious. I expected to passively read along, to accept his story as he told it, but because Kalanithi did more than just tell his story, I found myself actively tuning in and trying to tackle the philosophical questions he often mulled over: What makes life worth living? What makes it meaningful? What kind of life do we have if we are unable to communicate, if we have no language?

He didn’t try to answer these questions, but instead described the circumstances that led to him ponder them. In those instances, he showed that he was much more than a neurosurgeon. He was also a philosopher. He was also a fellow bibliophile, though the literature he tended to hang with are ones I often avoid, meaning the classics. But it was still easy to connect with him through his love of literature. I loved and admired his want, his need, to understand humanity as a whole, what connects us all and what do we strive for and what is the point of it all, as well as his attempt to connect the sciences and the humanities, which I think he accomplished in this book. He showed that when the two are used together, we gain a greater understanding of humanity.

“No system of thought can contain the fullness of human experience.”

There is much I learned and admired about this book but I don’t think I can relay well all that I got from reading it. I admire Kalanithi and I think he was a great man. He had accomplished much and I admired his drive to continue toward his goals even as his body rejected his strive and slowed down as he tried to push forward. I admire how he thought and the connections he made between the books he had read and his life’s experiences and his job and research as a neuroscientist and scholar.

It’s hard to read about such a life and not reflect on one’s own. While reading, I thought of all I want to accomplish and how far those goals seem. I reflected on my willpower, which, in comparison to Kalanithi’s, seem like a flicker of light that quickly outs at the slightest breeze. I don’t know if it’s a bad thing to think of such things and make such comparisons while reading a memoir about grave circumstances, but I couldn’t help myself. Kalanithi showed me that determination will get a person pretty far and I need to be more determined about my goals.

Regarding his cancer, though this book is about him suffering from cancer, Kalanithi approached it with an analytical eye. To me, he spoke of his condition like the doctor he was. I guess that’s why this wasn’t an emotional read for me. He shared his painful moments as well as when the cancer weakened him. He told us of the many ways it affected his body and the surgeries and therapies he underwent, but the way he relayed all this, so… matter-of-factly, made a sort of barrier, or space, between the reader and Kalanithi’s emotions. So we observe what happened to him without being immersed in his experience.

I think we get the emotional side of things from his wife’s words in the epilogue. And I don’t mean that this part was overly emotional, it’s just that the barrier in Kalanithi’s part is removed here. There is no space between the reader and the family’s emotions. Lucy invites us in to sit with her family and feel as they felt. Reading this part was hard for me.

Overall: ★★★★★

Great book. I highly recommend it. I think it’s a book that high-school and college students, especially, should read. I found it inspiring and I appreciate having read it because of all I’ve learned and all it has made me reflect on. I believe too that it should be a must read for those entering the medical field. I think I would have gotten more out of it if I had a medical or science background.

I think this is a book I’ll return to from time to time because I’ll always get something new from it each time I read it. It’s as much a philosophical text about mortality as it is a memoir about a man’s battle with cancer.

Quotes from the book:

“Books became my closest confidants, finely ground lenses providing new views of the world.”

“I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain. Meaning, while a slippery concept, seemed inextricable from human relationships and moral values.”

“Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection.”

“Words began to feel as weightless as the breath that carried them.”

“The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability.”

“Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.”

11 thoughts on ““When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

  1. I’m the same way as you about heavy books, but I’ve heard such great things about this one that I’ve put a hold on it in my library. Guess I’ll see!


  2. I bet he thought likewise when he read of other’s will, i think we all do.
    ” A flicker of light that quickly out’s at the slightest breeze ”
    That’s so beautiful man!
    I think a trap in our wants is expecting them to happen in a certain way, when the path often leads down and through and over before we reach the summit.

    Can I have your autograph?


  3. This book has received so much praise that I don’t want to read it. Just like you, I avoid books that have death and health issues. But I’m glad it wasn’t an emotional read. That may just make it easier.


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