When Breath Becomes Air: A Book Review


Happy Monday! We’ll keep today’s introduction before this new review short and sweet, only so I can ask what you’re currently reading. Anything fun?! :)

When Breath Becomes AirTitle: When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
Published: January 12, 2016 by Random House
Pages: 228
Genre: Adult / Memoir
Source: Library / Hardcover
Series: N/A

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 asking 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.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away?

Paul Kalanithi died while working on this profoundly moving book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both. {Goodreads}

Oscar Wilde wrote, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” I’m of the sentimental sort, but it’s a quote that nevertheless leaves me thinking: what makes a life well-lived? The question has long been pondered by philosophers and writers, among them, most recently, Paul Kalanithi, author of the memoir When Breath Becomes Air.

Memoirs are a change of pace from my fiction-heavy diet; if I look to novels as escape, a chance to experience a life different from my own, I think of nonfiction works as an exploration of the world around me and the people within it. What led me to Kalanithi’s book, however, was not a desire for another memoir, fascinating as they are, but an interest in the paradox of doctor as patient: what does one do in the face of a promising medical career and an irremediable cancer diagnosis?

“A word meant something only between people, and life’s meaning, its virtue, had something to do with the depth of the relationships we form.” Such is an example of Kalanithi’s eloquent prose, a thread he weaves heavily throughout the memoir as he explains his past – moving to Arizona with his family, studying English and biology at Stanford, graduating from Yale School of Medicine before beginning his residency – and the future he was bound to face when diagnosed with lung cancer. Kalanithi attacks the meaning of life with such passion and devotion that it’s difficult to think he wrote the piece in his last few months; you only come to realize his final chapter is, indeed, his last when his wife, Lucy, shares her sorrow in a touching epilogue.

Language is forever evolving, a fact Kalanithi fully recognizes as he skillfully finds the delicate balance between his study of words and his knowledge in medicine. Language and science are so often separated from one another – as if the humanities have no effect on the STEM industry, and vice versa – that it comes as a pleasant surprise that he is so open about his passion for both. His exquisite, verbose style of writing may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I, a lover of the literary form, found much to enjoy. Furthermore, he offers insight that goes beyond his situation and, I’d argue, reflect the wonderful man he’s said to have been.

Of course, in our diversity-aware society, Kalanithi’s privilege cannot – and does not – go unnoticed, by him or his audience. Few readers will relate to his prestigious education, not everyone can speak of as strong of a medical team, and, I’d imagine, only a select group will recognize the surgeon’s jargon he brings to the narrative. Being aware of such, does that make his story any less valuable? Others may be inclined to think so, but I like to attack it from a different perspective: what if, in addition to honoring the work and life of a gifted doctor and author, it serves as a reminder that the publishing needs a varying group of voices to mirror the wide world we live in?

The publication of When Breath Becomes Air is bittersweet: Kalanithi achieved his dream of writing a complete work, but he passed before he could see and touch a finished copy. What Kalanithi proves to be meaningful though it, though, is something I think he’d take pride in: deeper conversation on life and death and the relationships among us all. Kalanithi left the world far too early; fortunately, his spirit lives on in his close friends and family, his story in bookshelves around the world.

Have a wonderful start to your week!



3 thoughts on “When Breath Becomes Air: A Book Review

  1. I’m not much of a nonfiction / memoir reader, but this sounds so amazing that I’m tempted to make an exception. ;) Thanks for sharing Bella and, as always, fabulous review! <3 Definitely going to give this a try when I'm in the mood for a good nonfiction novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for stopping by, Zoe! :) I wasn’t much of a nonfiction reader myself until just last year, when I had a string of excellent and interesting reads. I hope you enjoy this one if you choose to check it out!


  2. […] When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi | “Kalanithi achieved his dream of writing a complete work, but he passed before he could see and touch a finished copy. What Kalanithi proves to be meaningful through it, though, is something I think he’d take pride in: deeper conversation on life and death and the relationships among us all.” […]


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