BOOK REVIEW: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

The Blurb (from Goodreads):

For readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, a profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir by a young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis who attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade's worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi's transformation from a naïve medical student "possessed," as he wrote, "by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life" into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. "I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything," he wrote. "Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: 'I can't go on. I'll go on.'" When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.

My Thoughts:

A delicate and profound memoir of dying written by a doctor with a poet’s turn of phrase, When Breath Becomes Air is one of those deceptively simple books that can pierce you to the heart. Paul Kalanithi is a neurosurgeon who has devoted his life to learning how to heal the sick, yet when he is diagnosed with inoperable cancer he must somehow find a way to come to terms with his own inevitable demise. He charts his life’s journey and his own fascination with the human brain and its capabilities, in language as clean and precise as a scalpel. It’s the kind of book you can open at random and find something beautiful and profound on every page. For example, plucked accidentally from p87:

For amid that unique suffering involved by severe brain damage, the suffering often felt more by families that by patients, it is not merely the physicians who do not see the full significance. The families who gather around their beloved – their beloved whose sheared heads contained battered brains – do not realise the full significance either. They see the past, the accumulation of memories, the freshly felt love, all represented by the body before them. I see the possible futures, the breathing machines connected through a surgical opening in the neck, the pasty liquid dripping in through a hole in the belly, the possible long, painful and only partial recovery – or sometimes more likely, no return at all of the person they remember. In those moments, I acted not, as I most often did, as death’s enemy, but as its ambassador.

This is not a book for comfortable reading, but it is a book that grapples directly with the great age-old question – what is the meaning of our lives?

You might also like to read my review of Anaesthesia by Kate Cole-Adams:

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