When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: A review

When breath becomes air is an autobiographical book by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon-neuroscientist who was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at the height of his career. This tragically ironic book takes you through the thoughts that Paul had about what makes life meaningful when one is faced with inevitable death.  It is one of my favourite books of all time, and really helped me to decide on medicine  as my future career path. Like Paul, I was torn between english literature and science, but as highlighted by this book, I decided that only medicine could satisfy my perpetual curiosity regarding the human mind.

Paul’s writing is sophisticated and beautiful. In this book, he takes the reader through his healthy, working life- where he seems almost guaranteed to succeed in his field. This contrasts with the second half of the book, when life is no longer full of stability and promise. Without knowing how much time he had left, how was he supposed to prioritise whether to keep contributing to neuroscience, or to complete more ‘mundane’ goals, such as having a child? Through reading this chapter in particular, I felt as if I got to know Paul and his thoughts in an intimate and incredibly humbling manner. Indeed, the human mind is what makes us unique, and Paul got that across in the points he made in the book, as well as through allowing the reader to stumble through his difficult journey alongside him.¬†

The incredibly sad nature of this book is that it is a real story. And therefore, Paul passed away before ever completing it. The epilogue, written by his wife Lucy was incredibly raw and disheartening- describing the tender last moments between Paul and his family.

This book instilled a deep appreciation within me, through highlighting the beauty of the most simple and organic things in life. It is an incredibly enriching read for anyone. I would also recommend that after reading this book, you watch the short video by Stanford: “A Strange Relativity” where Paul speaks about his experience as a surgeon-turned- patient. Seeing Paul in the flesh and hearing his voice was an incredibly surreal feeling after being inside his mind throughout the book, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for him.

To conclude, here are some quotes from the book that I found particularly poignant:

“the call to protect life- and not merely life but another’s identity.”

“if the weight of mortality does not grow lighter, does it at least get more familiar?”

“shouldn’t terminal illness, then, be the perfect gift to that young man who had wanted to understand death? What better way to understand it than to live it?”

“When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.”

“to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.”


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