When Breath Becomes Air
Summary (from Goodreads): For readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, a profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir by a young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis who attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?
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.
Marcie's Review: A hauntingly beautiful book written by a neurosurgeon diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. It is obvious that the author had once studied literature, since his words are written simplistically, yet imbued with a heart rending poetry. I was surprised that so much of the book was devoted to his earlier years; for some reason I thought it would primarily focus on the lessons he learned while dying. Be prepared to cry while reading this one.
Becky's Review: I really enjoy memoirs as they give me a peek into other people's lives and how they live. The look into med school and being a doctor was not one that I needed to read about. I have no interest in hearing about cadavers being cut open. The book is divided into 2 parts-one before his diagnosis and one after. The part before was slow and to me uninteresting since it was full of his life in medicine, something of which I really don't need to know details of. I constant put this book down in the first chapter even though he did have a poetic way of writing and seemed very introspective. The whole book was also very philosophical where the author delved into the meaning of what he was doing and how he was living and the meaning behind things. It got too heavy for me and I skimmed so I could read more about his life and what was happening to him. My favorite part of the book was the epilogue that was written by his wife. That is the part that made me tear up. She did mention that Paul worked on the book after his diagnosis before he passed away and it was unfinished. To me, that explained a lot about the book and its organization. Maybe the problem I had with this book is that I am not a very existential person and Paul certainly was.
Marcie's Rating: 4,5 stars
Becky's Rating: 3 stars