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Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

November 7, 2016


As human beings, we all grapple with the soul-searching question of what makes life meaningful. In his memoir When Breath Becomes Air, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi endeavors to answer this question as his path towards an illustrious career is tragically cut short by lung cancer. This is a beautifully written, heart-wrenching book that challenges us to reflect on what our core values are and how to live our lives according to those values.


Kalanithi developed a strong appreciation for language as a young man in Arizona. Motivated by the desire to understand what makes life meaningful, he embarked on a scholarly journey of literature and human biology to integrate these two different perspectives. He wrote, “There must be a way that the language of life as experienced- of passion, of hunger, of love- bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracts, and heartbeats.” Unsatisfied with his understanding of these life-and-death issues from an academic standpoint, he pursued more direct experiences by becoming a doctor.


Yet, even as he witnessed many patients in their last moments, he did not fully comprehend what it was like to face death until his own diagnosis. Having built his identity as a neurosurgeon, Kalanithi was forced to reconsider what was most important to him and how he wanted to spend the remaining time he had left. Faced with uncertainty, confusion, and a shortage of time, he ultimately found solace in becoming a father.


When Breath Becomes Air is a deeply moving reflection of Kalanithi’s experiences as both a physician and a patient. Even in his last moments, he confronts death with grace and bravery, and provides us with hope for finding meaning in our own lives.



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