The only thing I love more than reading is talking about what I’ve read and because I’ve always been a bit of a bookworm erring on the side of nerdy, I’ve really been looking forward to writing one of these reader’s advisories. So without further ado, I present my first book report for adults: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.
The truth is I’m not entirely sure how to introduce this book without first introducing Paul Kalanithi, who was a neurosurgeon and writer based out of Stanford. Although I never met Paul (obviously) and have only come to know him through this one work, he struck me as one of those preternaturally talented people that defied categorization; he wasn’t just a surgeon or writer but something rarer (what that is, I’m not entirely sure). Having graduated from Stanford with a BA and MA in English literature as well as a BA in human biology, Paul went on to the University of Cambridge and obtained his MPhil. Impressive as that was, that wasn’t the end of Paul’s academic career and he later went on to study medicine at Yale School of Medicine, completing his residency at Stanford in one of the most demanding fields of surgery. However, all that hard work and years of training – in both English literature and medicine – paid off and we, as readers become luckier for it.
OK, great but what is this book about?
In a short 200 pages Paul explores the question of what makes life worth living and wrote with such elegance and grace that it was easy to understand why he had done so well in his studies. His work was sophisticated and touched on his impressive medical training but was presented in an accessible way that even I, someone who had abandoned science class by grade eleven, felt included.
Written after Paul had received his cancer diagnosis, When Breath Becomes Air is about a person facing his own mortality and exploring what life means to him, tackling the subject from his highly educated and unique vantage point. Rather than unpacking the topic from a purely medical or literary/artistic perspective, the work focuses on the intersections of these two fields; his literature as in life relies on a coexistence between art and biology. It really is beautiful.
Thanks to When Breath Becomes Air, those of us who never met Paul Kalanithi will both mourn his death and benefit from his life. This is one of a handful of books I consider to be a universal donor – I would recommend it to anyone, everyone – Ann Patchett
When Breath Becomes Air resonated with me for a number of reasons: the subject and the beautiful way in which it was presented, as well as Paul’s story. Paul died in March 2015 at only 37 years old and his wife Lucy, an equally talented and accomplished doctor who authors the 28 page epilogue of When Breath Becomes Air, had recently given birth to their daughter. And while his life looked drastically different on the outside from that of my dad, a husband for more than 30 years and father of three grown children who was approaching retirement, the parallels are there; in many respects both were just entering a new phase in life after years and years of hard work but all of that got cut short due to cancer that was diagnosed all too late. The relationship may seem tenuous to some but for me it’s clear and demonstrates what I’ve long suspect about loss: it never feels fair.
Whatever your experience may be with death and loss, When Breath Becomes Air is such a valuable read and I promise you that you will get something from it. This work managed to simultaneously break my heart and some how instil a sense of hope. As a demonstration of that, I will leave you with Paul’s own words
Looking out over the expanse ahead I saw not an empty wasteland but something simpler: a blank page on which I would go on.