When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: 5/5

Key Takeaway

You will die. You need to figure out what makes life worth living before that happens.

What This Book Is About:

When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir by the neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi written as he battles cancer that will sooner or later take his life.

It is a reflection on life itself. Kalanithi became a neurosurgeon and philosopher to explore the mysteries of life and death. After spending his lifetime studying death from the outside, he gives us a glimpse of what it means when it is so near. He approaches death not only as a dying man but also as a scholar. He reflects on his life for the reader’s benefit and uses it to teach us lessons about what it means to live life well.

Kalanithi passes away before he is able to fully complete his book.

What This Book Says In Whole:

When Breath Becomes Air is split into two parts: Part I, discussing his life prior to his diagnosis, and Part II, discussing his life after.

Part I is a rich read even on it’s own. It’s such a rich read that the transition to Part II took me by surprise because I was so engrossed. It’s about Kalanithi’s childhood, university experience and residency, where he studies death through English and Philosophy, and then decides to become a neurosurgeon to study death intimately. It explains the pressures physicians face and the responsibility they hold.

I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful?

If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?

Moral speculation was puny compared to moral action.

Part II tears that all down again. Kalanithi says that despite a lifetime studying death did not prepare him for the reality of death coming for him. It couldn’t have. Seeing the medical experience from the point of view of doctor instead of patient reshaped the way he views medical practice. The experience of dying itself shaped the way he experienced time, family and the future, and forced him to rebuild an identity from the ashes.

Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely.

Like my own patients, I had to face my mortality and try to understand what made my life worth living.

Shouldn’t terminal illness, then, be the perfect gift to that young man who had wanted to understand death?

Is This Book True or In Part? Do I Agree With What It Says?

I know nothing of death. It’s exactly for this reason that I should keep death top of mind. Kalanithi was young when he was diagnosed and young when he passed away. He spends some time in the book reflecting on the fact that he spent his entire life in education only to be diagnosed just weeks before finally completing his education and becoming a research professor. It’s a blunt reminder that none of us know how long we have left. We can spend our entire lives striving for something only to die before getting it. We can die young. We can’t live for the future because the future may never come. Best to appreciate life while we still have it.

Why Should You Care?

Death comes for all of us.

Some Quotes I Liked:

This book has so many good quotes that this would have been a ten page article if I included them all.

Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?” (Kalanithi’s wife said).

Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said… After so many years of living with death, I’d come to understand that the easiest death wasn’t necessarily the best.

Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.

Works Cited In The Book: