Author: Paul Kalanithi Series: Standalone Genre: Nonfiction Release Date: January 12, 2016 Book Length: 229 pages Publisher: Random House Review: 4/5
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.
Dr. Paul Kalanithi is a young aspiring neurosurgeon in his residency when he gets the devastating news that he has terminal lung cancer. What is so venerable about Paul is how he cared so deeply for his patients and how important the doctor/patient relationship is, especially for those whose lives are hanging in the balance. However, for someone who is exposed to the workings of the human brain as well as the suffering and death of others on a daily basis, Paul realizes that he actually doesn’t really understand what they are going through until tragedy happens to him. To watch the doctor go from aid to aided as he is slowly engulfed by his illness was absolutely poignant.
This autobiography made me reflect on my own life as well as from where and whom I derive meaning. The thought of death is terrifying, and the fact that it is inevitable makes it more so. But, I think the thought of not having lived a purposeful, meaningful life rooted in love before you meet that fate is even scarier. At the end of the day, the way in which Paul accepted his fate so readily and fearlessly was very admirable. As Paul passed away before the publication of this book, his wife wrote an Epilogue which ended up being such a moving finish. Although he is no longer with us, it is beautiful that he gets to live on through this memoir.
“I don’t believe in the wisdom of children, nor in the wisdom of the old. There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of the living. We are never so wise as when we live in the moment.”