Sunday Book Review – When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi

My Sunday Book Review is for When Breath Becomes Air – A story of courage about the life of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon in his prime, just finishing his medical residency when he’s faced with the fatal blow of an almost certain death sentence when diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Nonfiction.





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 treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air 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 neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father 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 death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST • This inspiring, exquisitely observed memoir finds hope and beauty in the face of insurmountable odds as an idealistic young neurosurgeon attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?

NAMED ONE OF PASTE’S BEST MEMOIRS OF THE DECADE • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review • People • NPR • The Washington Post • Slate • Harper’s Bazaar • Time Out New York • Publishers Weekly • BookPage

Finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction and the Books for a Better Life Award in Inspirational Memoir


My 4 Star Review:

This is the memoir of Dr. Paul Kalanithi who takes us along his journey as he recants and examines his life leading up to his becoming a neurosurgeon and neuro-scientist. Less than a year left to finishing his 10-year surgical residency, he is given the fatal diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer, and this is when his originally intent memoir on his studies and how his path in life led him to wanting him to become a neurosurgeon, became a different story – more about his determination to continue his studies and being a surgeon, now focused on the life-altering decisions he had to make and the disease taking away parts of him as the story progresses.

We follow Dr. Paul’s remainder of his life throughout his treatments, philosophies and decisions until his last ‘breath of air’, which if not had been cut short, I’m convinced he may have become one of the world reknowned neurosurgeons of our time, had the Big ‘C’ not rocked his world and everything he worked hard to reach hitting at the pinnacle of his career.

This is the story about a man, a doctor, who became ‘the patient’ who knew despite the possible miracles that could happen that his diagnosis meant the clock was now ticking on his life, and shares his story with us about what he’d do for the remainder of his time while hope still floated, but common sense lurked inside him as he stoically accepted his demise.

We learn a bit about his world, his work, his marriage and the decision to have a child despite the edict. We’re taken into his world of medicine, life and death decisions he made, and his journey of hope until his ultimate death.

Dr. Paul prepared his whole life to become a neurosurgeon, but always with a passion for literature and an undeniable desire to also become a writer – something he’d planned on doing in later decades in his life after he would finish being a surgeon. But future plans now became the present with possible limited time to fit in a lifetime of desires. Writing and children became a topic to be dealt with in the now, no longer the future.

Dr. Paul continued to write this book throughout his treatments and illness to leave something behind – his life story as his legacy. He died before it was finished, and his wife Lucy wrote the epilogue. His determination to keep writing though, was relentless as was his vigor to live – “Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I’m still living.” With so many questions and decisions to be made, Dr. Paul shared his confliction in life as he had only another year to go to finish his surgical residency.  He wondered if he should continue to live life through optimism for a cure or continue his work, start a family and prepare for certain death.

I’d classify this book as part memoir as I felt the initial intent was to journal his life to becoming a doctor, which then turned to more of a soul-searching with reflections and platitudes and a need to perhaps ‘hurry it along’ as his illness progressed. And to be honest, I thought his wife’s epilogue was the most beautiful part of the book. As a compassionate human being myself, I was moved by the story and the miraculous man Dr. Paul. But as a writer myself, I felt the pace and a bit of a directional change midway through the book as well as important gaps – mainly emotion, which I couldn’t get a feel for from this doctor. I felt a bit distanced as I read the book, not all consumed because despite the horrific death sentence and Dr. Paul’s lifetime of work, I felt he didn’t reveal enough of himself or emotions to invite me in to his character, hence, the 4 stars.