Title: When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
Rating Out of 5: 4.5 (Amazing, but not quite perfect)
My Bookshelves: Death, Medical, Memoirs
Dates read: 2nd – 13th October 2021
Publisher: Vintage Books
5th sentence, 74th page: The surgeon got to work, passed a small endoscope through Matthew’s nose, and drilled off the floor of his skull.
What do you do when life is catastrophically interrupted?
What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away? 8 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 new father.
I knew that I was probably going to shed at least a few tears at the end of this book. I mean, it’s a book written by a man who is terminally ill. It’s going to make you cry. I didn’t quite expect how much I cried though. Partly because I didn’t think that it would be the epilogue written by Kalanithi’s wife that would really set me off… maybe not the best book to read when you’re pregnant and hormonal.
When Breath Becomes Air is incredibly humbling. It is filled with reminders that your world can change in a moment and everything you worked towards can just be ripped away. Yet, even though Paul was writing this in his final months and knew what was coming for him, he writes in such a way that you feel… at peace with his fate. Having been around numerous people with a terminal illness, reading about someone who faced their diagnosis head on like this… as I said, humbling.
The first part of this memoir focuses on Kalanithi’s decision to become a neuroscientist. About his constant battle to find a meaning in life where he isn’t entirely sure there is one. I love that he talks about his love for both literature and science. And how instead of being independent of each other (an assumption I’ve often come up against), they build upon one another. You can feel the passion for both fields streaming off the page as you read about Kalanithi’s numerous experiences and a life well lived.
This is one of those amazing memoirs that makes you feel… well, everything. It definitely left me feeling a little bit raw. But, mostly it just made me feel humble and aware of all of my own faults. But not in a bad way. I know that I couldn’t go through a terminal diagnosis like Kalanithi with the kind of calm and grace that he shows. And it’s kind of nice to read the words of someone who actually was capable of doing so.
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