Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

It’s that time of year when many of us are making resolutions and wondering if we’re going to be able to keep them—and calculating what the consequences will be if we don’t.

Back in ancient Babylonian times, if a person didn’t keep his promise to repay his debts, he would fall out of favor with the pagan gods–not a good thing. Nowadays, consequences from resolution setbacks are easier to swallow; we usually only have to answer to ourselves if we don’t lose that weight, learn that new language, or read all the books on our Goodreads 2017 challenge list.

But we still feel bad. One of my resolutions last year was to write a book review blog on the first Monday of each month. Unfortunately, that intention fell flat on its face way back in April. Now I’m reviving it.

unknown-17When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi, is part memoir and part meditation on what’s most important in life. Just as the author completed ten years of education and medical training to become a neurosurgeon, he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Treatments failed, and when he learned he had little time left, he sat down to write this book.

Like Oliver Sacks, Kalanithi was not just a brilliant brain doctor. He was also a man who deeply appreciated the beauty and importance of language, having studied literature in his undergraduate and graduate programs. He viewed literature as the “richest material for moral reflection” because it portrays the messiness of life, and his writing reflects how he valued the written word.

He was also intrigued by philosophy, and—like neuroscientist Candace Pert–he firmly believed the body and mind are intertwined. “Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living.”

Kalanithi had always wanted to write a book, and when he learned about his diagnosis, he had to decide what he would do with the rest of his life. For a while, he tried to continue to practice medicine, but eventually he concluded there were other things that mattered more. The main takeaway from this book for me was the notion, frequently discussed between Kalanithi and his oncologist, that we need to continuously monitor–and respond to–our values, which by necessity change as we meander through life.

The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out…You may decide you want to spend your time working as a neurosurgeon, but two months later, you may feel differently. Two months after that, you may want to learn to play the saxophone or devote yourself to the church. Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.”

Despite the fact that he wrote this book while teetering on the precipice of death, Kalanithi made it remarkably uplifting, and I think that’s why The New York Times called it both gripping and unmissable. It bluntly remind us that we’re all going to die, but it also asks us to ponder ideas that are simultaneously simple and complicated–ideas that will hopefully guide us to spend the rest of our lives in the best way we know how.



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2 Responses to Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

  1. Happy to read your review … have come so close to reading this book, but actually a bit scared to. It’s on Powell’s Presidential Reading List for the outgoing president! = Katy in Seattle was the blurb writer: “I think President Obama would enjoy this beautifully written memoir. Deep and expansive, it leaves the reader contemplating legacy, fairness, and what we can’t control.” I may again get brave enough to read it, but still glad for this review!!

    • What’s cool about this book is that everyone seems to get something different out of it. Don’t be frightened by it!

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