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Book Review : When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

8th June, 2016

Book Review : When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This memoir chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a Literature student to a medical student; then 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.


For reasons unknown to even myself, I do not read alot of non fiction. I was hoping this year I would be able to explore this genre and discover if I would like to read more of it. That is how I picked up this memoir by Paul Kalanithi. What made the book more personal to me is because so many of the conversations he has described are ones I have heard at the dining table between my parents, both of whom are doctors. And that is what I liked most about the book – how he opens up the world of a reader to how traumatic the life of a doctor is, both on the professional front and the personal front.

“If the weight of mortality does not grow lighter, does it at least get more familiar?”

The book opens up with a surgeon examining a set of CT scans. He studies the images and puts forward his diagnosis. Yes, Cancer. Seems like an ordinary day in a surgeon’s life. Except that he is looking at his own scans. Fifteen months before he will completes his training to become a full fledged professor of neurosurgery, death glares at him mercilessly.

The book is a book of two sides or halves. The first half about saving lives and the second half about facing death. One half about the struggles of becoming a doctor and the second about the anguish of being a patient. One half showing cracks in a marriage and the other showing how deep it really was, in the minds of either partner. It was very moving to read how Kalanithi describes the harrowing experience of breaking bad news to patients as a surgeon and then later on transforms into a passive listener having to face bad news.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

I enjoyed the journey. It broke my heart at some places and even made me smile at others. There were a few medical terms that were sprinkled through the book, but it did not dampen my enthusiasm to read further at all. There were new medical symptoms that I came across like the ‘psychogenic syndrome’ where the patient goes to a swoon like state and has to be coaxed back into reality by reassuring talks; and the one about how a small surgical mishap that cut 1 mm of a boy’s hypothalamus caused him to be institutionalized later on; and the one about a 62 year old man unable to speak words except in terms of numbers.

I would read this book for the philosophy and a human being’s experience at the face of death than for its literary value. There was a very moving passage about a Mr. V who was greatly admired by Kalanithi for his professional integrity. When nearing his own death Mr. V asks Kalanithi, “Do you think I made the right choices? Do you think my life has meaning?”  The question strikes me violently, just as it struck Kalanithi, how doubtful are the questions looming in our mind in the face of mortality. The passages about Kalanithi’s journey from a Literature student to a philosopher and how he ended up studying medicine offer even more food for thought. I loved Kalanithi’s humour when he says “I outlived the Brontes which is good news, the bad being I didn’t write anything yet” and also his notes on literature  about “Virginia Woolf getting into an Abyssinian ship dressed as a dignitary”. I did not enjoy much of the beginning parts of the book, but the middle portions had me hooked. The ending was abrupt indeed, because sometimes our words can be snatched away before we can end them the way we want.

Thanks to a friend on Bookstagram, I came across this article by Paul’s sister in law in her blog A cup of Jo  about a makeover of the house after his death. I must say it made the book feel so real to me, that the people in the book exist, when I saw the pictures of the house where a gentle man as Kalanithi lived and breathed until breath became air.

This one is a tear jerker. But let that motivate you to pick it up, not deter you. And perhaps let it give you a sense of gratitude for all the time you are allowed on this earth.

Title : When Breath Becomes Air
Author : Paul Kalanithi
Publisher : Random House
Published : 2016
Language : English
Pages : 228
Rating : 3.5/5

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When Breath Becomes Air

About the Author

Paul Kalanithi was an American neurosurgeon and writer. He attended Stanford University and graduated with a bachelor of arts and a master’s degree in English literature as well as a bachelor of science in human biology. After Stanford, he earned a master’s in the history and philosophy of science and medicine from the University of Cambridge. He went on to the Yale School of Medicine. His book When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir about his life and illness, battling stage IV metastatic lung cancer. It was posthumously published by Random House in January 2016. It was on the The New York Times Non-Fiction Best Seller list for multiple weeks

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This Post Has 20 Comments
  1. I was about to pick this book yesterday. Looks like a great read. Loved the last line on why to pick up the book.

  2. That’s the striking thing about memoirs, is that it reads like a story and so sometimes it’s easy to forget they’re real people. But when you do realize it’s like this dump truck of emotions. And that line Mr. V asks about if his life has meaning is so heavy. I can’t even imagine being faced with someone asking me that. As usual, you’ve delivered a thorough and insight review that makes me want to read a book I don’t think I would have noticed otherwise!

  3. This sounds good. Just the premise of a student moving from literature to medicine and the motivations behind such a decision seems interesting.

    I really like the quotes that you posted.

  4. When reading plans become a chore I think that they lose their original purpose. I agree that sometimes it is best to let them fall by the wayside.

    With that, you have read some really good books as a result of this challenge. Either way I would guess that you will be reading really good books in the future.

  5. I read more nonfiction last year than this year for some reason, but this is definitely in my priority TBR pile. I’ve heard other readers becoming emotional as well. Thanks for sharing your review!

  6. Likewise, I am not someone who reads too much nonfiction. So this one had me interested. I’m worried there will be too much medical talk I won’t be able to understand of have much of an interest in. But I can see how this one would reach out to you, especially having parents who share the profession mentioned. I guess this one really shows how much of a struggle the medical field can be.

    1. Actually it isn’t so bad. There are not many medical terms used in the book. But it is heartbreaking because we know that he is going to die very soon. Which makes it a tear jerker.

  7. I don’t read much nonfiction either, but I loved Kalanithi’s memoir. I admired his ability to discuss life and death in a candid, meaningful way, and how courageous he was when he faced his end. It truly was a heart-wrenching, moving book.

  8. I don’t tend to read non fiction much, but this sounds like such a good read. The quote you chose, “If the weight of mortality does not grow lighter, does it at least get more familiar?” resonated so much with me that I definitely have to add this one to the pile. Wonderful review!

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