When Breath Becomes Air is the memoir of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon diagnosed with terminal lung cancer just as his career is about to start. With his musical prose, Kalanithi takes the reader on an incredibly moving journey as he comes to terms with his own mortality and identifies what makes life worth living.
It is hard for me to put into words how much this book means to me. As someone who sees death and all its ugliness almost every day as part of my work in a neuroscience intensive care unit and is simultaneously petrified of not having enough time in life, I found Kalanithi’s perspective particularly interesting and familiar. The idea of him not recognizing death when it was happening to him personally, despite his daily encounters with is as a neurosurgeon is a sentiment I found to be both poignant and important. Kalanithi’s portrayal of the array of emotions and challenging decisions associated with facing his own mortality and ensuring his last few days were meaningful was so moving and truly unlike anything I have ever read before.
I am absolutely in awe of this book. Dr. Kalanithi taught me more about having a meaningful and fulfilling existence in 200 pages than I have learned in 22 years of living. I can honestly say that I am a better person as a result of reading this memoir and can say with confidence that this is the best book I have ever read. I encourage everyone to pick up a copy and learn from Paul. You won’t be sorry.
As always, let me know in the comments below your thoughts on this book and check back here over the weekend for my review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.
5 out of 5 stars
“While all doctors treat disease, neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity: every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of ourselves, and every conversation with a patient undergoing brain surgery cannot help but confront this fact…At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living…Because the brain mediates out experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer the question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?” –p. 71
“Death, so familiar to me in my work was now paying a personal visit. Here we were, finally face-to-face, and yet nothing about it seemed recognizable” –p. 121