When Breath Becomes Air

A short while ago, I read this amazing book, “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi, and I wanted to share my thoughts about it here. So, this is the blurb:

What do you do when life is catastrophically interrupted?

What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away?

What makes life worth living in the face of death?

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live.

When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student in search of what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and a new father.


Being a fiction enthusiast, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little hesitant of trying an autobiography. I was expecting a dull narrative: a documentary on paper, almost. I could not have been more wrong.

When I saw the name of the author, I suspected that he might be South Indian as Kalanithi is a Tamil name, which piqued my interest. By the end of the book, my suspicions had been confirmed as his wife Lucy referred to eating dosa with the Kalanithi family which is a traditional Tamil dish. Being a Tamilian myself, knowing this made the book even more relatable; for example, when Paul describes his mother’s fears of a poor education for her children when they move to Arizona and her efforts in finding him books to prepare him for college, I felt that I could understand this since my family holds similar views on the importance of education. However, there are bounds to relatability; Afterall, there is only so much a person can find relatable in a Stanford, Cambridge and Yale graduate!

A quality that I grew to admire in Paul is the way he contemplated the world he lived in – he could have so easily been a philosopher instead of a neurosurgeon. Though some might say he was indeed a philosopher. Paul was a fully rounded person. He could not be seen just as a neurologist or a philosopher or a book-lover, because he was all those things and those different aspects to him somehow interact with each other as he seeks to find the connection between morality, literature, philosophy and science.

Kalanithi’s way of thinking and seeing the world certainly changed my own perspective. So, I suppose this book, if nothing else, taught me that autobiographies are not boring! I was quite astonished at how much I felt like I knew the person who had written this masterpiece. The idea of learning about the likes, dislikes, interests and insecurities, the little quirks of not a character in a fantasy world but a real person is quite mind-boggling (in a good way)

I hope to read more great books in the future that offer a new perspective on medicine as powerful and inspiring as this one.

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