When Breath Becomes Air
by Paul Kalanithi
At the age of thirty-six, just months away from finishing his years of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. In an instant, Kalanithi’s imagined future with his wife was gone, replaced by pain and uncertainty. Where he had been the doctor before, he was now the patient, struggling to live and find the path that had once been so clear. He had chosen to be a neurosurgeon with the belief that through his work, he could reach an understanding of identity, meaning, and death. Suddenly diagnosed with a terminal illness, Kalanithi described the experience of facing his own mortality as “disorienting” and “dislocating”. Once again, he was left searching for answers. What is the meaning of life? How do you assess your life when faced with death? How do you forge a new identity while death looms near? When Breath Becomes Air is Kalanithi’s attempt to answer these questions and more, striving to reach a conclusion before time runs out.
What I liked most about this book was the author’s writing style. Kalanithi has the kind of eloquent writing style that makes it a pleasure to read any story. He articulated his thoughts clearly and gracefully, despite their sometimes abstract nature, and addressed some of the most difficult questions of life with poise. Throughout the book, he showed that he was compassionate, yet capable of reasoning without the clouding of emotion.
It was particularly inspiring for me to see how Kalanithi became so successful. Through a combination of intelligence, diligence, and ambitious parents, he excelled in academics and in his training as a neurosurgeon. His studies in English as well as his interest in philosophy gave him a unique – and I would argue more well-rounded and open-minded – perspective on his line of work.
It was fascinating to watch Kalanithi’s philosophical journey. He began as an eager student, confident he would find the answers he was looking for in his work. After all, how much closer could one get to understanding individual identity than studying the brain? As a neurosurgeon, Kalanithi would be able to see life and death up close; he believed this would help him better understand both. Facing the probability of his own death shattered Kalanithi’s certainty and caused him to reevaluate his most important values, principles, and beliefs. Because of my Christian faith, I disagreed with how he approached the subject of life, death, and meaning. However, I agreed with many of his assertions and found his opinions to be valuable for provoking a thorough examination of one’s own beliefs.
I would recommend this book for older readers. There are a few instances where profanity is used, but the real issue for younger readers is the subject matter. Kalanithi focuses primarily on how the choices we make give our lives meaning and how those choices change when we are faced with death. This may be a bit abstract for younger readers; however, a particularly mature young reader might be able to understand and appreciate this book, with parental guidance given as needed. When Breath Becomes Air is a beautifully written, deeply moving memoir that will speak to all of its readers.