When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

when-breath-becomes-airIt’s been more than two months since I finished When Breath Becomes Air and I’m still thinking about it. I also still don’t know how I can encompass my experience of reading it and put it into words, let alone a blog post. I just want to push this book into everyone’s hands and tell them to read it.

When Breath Becomes Air is the memoir of Paul Kalanithi. After training for a decade to be a neurosurgeon, Paul finds out he has terminal lung cancer. The book is a chronicle of his journey as he contemplates what it means to have a good life, and a good death. What it means to bring a new life into the world as his fades and what happens when the next stages of your life you had planned out are taken away.

When I turned the final page of this book, I sat there with it closed in my hands, unable to know what to do with myself. I couldn’t read another word of anything, not even a magazine, after it – I needed to sit with the book and the feelings it gave me for a while. I needed to think about them, process the book and examine what I felt.

I felt intensely sad, but the feeling was multi-layered. I felt sad that this man who I felt I’d got to know a little from the book had passed away, but wondered if that was really what he would have wanted readers to take away from his book, if that was his intention when writing. I don’t think so. He worked for a meaningful life, and while that life was cut far too short, he found meaning and peace and happiness. The book inspired me – this is what I want, too, to live a fulfilled and meaningful life, and I was profoundly moved by the book. I feel privileged to have been a witness to his thoughts and feelings about death and mortality and life. He was an intelligent man.

The book isn’t all about his illness and death; certainly the first half of the book at least concentrates on his time training and practising as a neurosurgeon. I found his thoughts about doctors and patients interesting, particularly how his own illness affected how he wanted to practise and treat his own patients. I especially found his opinions on the connection between our brains and identity fascinating and thought-provoking.

Kalanithi had a style of writing that makes reading about a difficult subject, easy to understand; he articulated complex ideas – the meaning of life and death – in a way that’s lyrical and poetic. There’s a raw honesty and bravery in his writing that I admire.

Originally I wrote that I hope it’s clear how much I love this book. But, actually, this isn’t a book I love—it’s a book I value. I’m so glad that I read it. The feelings Kalanithi’s words left me with have stayed with me – one of inspiration and purpose – and I have a feeling that they will continue to.

Have you read When Breath Becomes Air? What did you think?


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