When Breath Becomes Air

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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.  (Summary and cover courtesy of goodreads.com)


This was a book that reminded me a lot of “The Opposite of Loneliness” where I was overly-aware that my perception of the book was influenced the knowledge that the author was going to die by the end.  That being said, I found this book incredibly poignant and a fantastic reminder of what are the most important things in life.  Thought you can’t live every day like it’s your last (contrary to the saying), the book is a good grounding in what is most important in life.

This was a book that I finished in three sit downs because despite my best intentions, it was one I couldn’t put down and I was desperate to know what happened.  While unsettling, it’s also fascinating to hear what other people do when they know that their time is soon to run out.  Though it left me in tears, it’s a book that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone looking for a reminder of what’s important in life.

Rating: 4 stars!

Who should read it? Anyone looking for a reminder of what’s important in life!