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 making a living treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air, which features a Foreword by Dr. Abraham Verghese and an Epilogue by Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy, 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 young neurosurgeon at Stanford, guiding patients toward a deeper understanding of death and illness, and finally into a patient and a new father to a baby girl, 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 mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.
Author: Paul Kalanithi
What an absolutely beautiful book by an absolutely beautiful person. I often find memoirs interesting, but it is rare that I find them so moving. Paul is not only a brilliant doctor with a unique story to tell but also a fantastic writer. I picked up this book because I was intrigued by what I’d heard about the subject matter and because it had received significant acclaim. I kept reading it because I was enraptured.
What the book’s summary doesn’t tell you is that Paul had a medical degree as well as an MA in English literature. This does, of course, explain why he writes so eloquently, but it is also pivotal to his entire life. He spent his education and his career attempting to join what it means to be medically alive and what it means to be spiritually, emotionally alive—something captured through storytelling about the human existence. To him, the body and soul cannot exist if medicine and literature do not work in tandem. I think this idea is so beautiful.