Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

Last year, when I was trying to do Tim Challies’s yearly reading challenge (before falling off the train), I stumbled upon When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. I think I was trying to fill the memoir category, so I did what any normal person would do: I googled memoirs. And in some way, came upon this book. I added it to my Goodreads “to read” shelf, but never got around to reading it last year. However, When Breath Becomes Air and its premise never left my mind. whenbreathbecomesair

When a fellow Navy wife wanted to start a book club, this short memoir came to mind as a reading option. I had recently picked it up from Barnes and Noble and wanted an excuse to read it. So we did! And I read it in one sitting.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is more than a memoir. It is both a reflection on Kalanithi’s personal life and a reflection on the facts of life in general, primarily death. The book is divided into two parts: life before his diagnosis, and life leading up to and after. Kalanithi wrote about his childhood and how he came to study medicine (even after getting an advanced degree in English Literature). He reflects on his constant dealings with death throughout his internship and surgical residency and how he came to understand death itself.

His wisdom on death, that it is normal and not to be feared, is both sobering and inspiring. A terminal diagnosis was not frightening to him. Rather, he continued to live his life as normal. I think that was the most remarkable thing about him to me, his attitude about dying. He did wrestle with exactly what to continue doing – surgery or switch to writing. But in the end, he did both. He continued as a surgeon, he wrote his memoir, he even intentionally had a child with his wife.

In the face of death, Paul Kalanithi lived. He did not let cancer and his impending death take over his life. He lived as normal, with many not even knowing that he was suffering from cancer. He did not let cancer become his identity. As someone who deals with sickness and many unknowns with my own health, reading When Breath Becomes Air forced me to pause and take stock of my own life. Do I let my own (granted, non-lethal) sickness become my identity? Too often I do. Reading the memoir of a man who lived his life despite his cancer forced me to reconsider how I approach my own life and pushed me to do more, even when I am concerned “not feeling well” will interfere.

Anyone who has been touched by illness – doctors, patients, loved ones of each – should read this book. Paul Kalanithi had a perspective like no other. When Breath Becomes Air was beautifully written and is a wonderful tribute to a life lived well.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi gets 5/5 stars.


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