Book Review : When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi

Genre : Nonfiction, Autobiography, Memoir
Page : 208 pages
Published : 12th January 2016

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.

“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

This book shows how brave Paul Kalanithi is in the face of death.

But what makes this book wonderful, is the power it holds to make me re-ponder my life.

When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir by Paul Kalanithi- who’s in the verge of completing neurosurgeon training of ten years, when suddenly diagnosed with staged IV lung cancer.

I have long wished to read this book. It was in my must-read list for years. And so, when I managed to get the book somehow, in this period of my age where I ponder what matters to me in my life, I wait no more and started reading right away.

Truly, there’s not much to say about this book but at the same time, it says a lot.

What I learned

1. The Thin Line

It’s scary to realise how death is just around the corner. Yes we are living, whether we are living a fulfilling life or just simply living, no one knows for sure how much time we have got left. I believe we all realized this, but having Paul mention it directly and know that it’s true, it’s scary. There is only a thin line separating life and death.

2. The Never Giving Up Hope

If there is one thing to associate Paul with, it’s his energy, belief and hope to never give up. Not only in terms of his staged IV lung cancer, but in everything. The one aspect I am positive about Paul, is he’s a very dedicated hardworking man. Regarding his career, his marriage life, his illness and later, his passion and hope that delivers him in writing this book for us.

3. The Doctor Life

We all probably already know how harsh it is to be a doctor. In this book, Paul pour out his true noble vision as a neurosurgeon and also his honest thoughts just like any other ordinary human being towards healthcare industry. Paul open up probably only about one forth of the industry but now, I know much more about the pressure and how doctors might act behind the curtain. Being a doctor, moreover a neurosurgeon doctor is indeed not an easy task.

4. The Where Our Heart Is

Good friends are of course one of the most amazing things that can happen to all of us. But, Paul shows that family is the best thing that ever happen to him. No more words needed to say. Family that blooms in love is just the most wonderful gift that will always be there to support us and to love us, no matter what happen.

5. For Love

We live for those we love and we are willing to struggle for better future, thinking about all those people that cared for us and we cared for, thinking how amazing it will be to love a bright future with them in it.

I could also read many relatable quotes I could relate hard and some that had me thinking hard.

Quotes I Love

1. “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

I am a motivational freak, an emotional wreck and I love this kind of inspiring quotes. It’s simple and yet, it touches soul. Moreover, the abundance feelings it showered me when I read through the paragraph in the book and understanding Paul’s circumstances. It was not about only reading, but it was also about the emotion. The emotion is just overwhelming.

2. “You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

Which is something I could relate- in the past. Where I haven’t lost all the hope and doubt myself. I don’t even know where to aim right in this moment. However, this quote offers me hope for the future and I find it beautiful. Also, I hope this quote could also somehow inspired you. By Paul Kalanithi, to all readers in the world (^v^)

3. “Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.”

Maybe, this quote is could be understand better if you read the book. Paul writes such a beautiful understanding of how there are so many professions that requires diverse knowledge and it is impossible to find it all in one specific person. Also, the many professions exist are not enough to start working on the mystery in the world.

4. “Life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”

I wished I could just be a brave soul and charged on ahead without being afraid to get hurt. Or worse, to suffer. This is something I’m still trying to work on and I hope I could mature well as I dive through my life journey.

Maybe Question I Will Keep Asking Myself

It’s simple, but the answers held a great depth despite the question. This is a question I’ve been asking myself recently ( and many times) months before I read this book.

“What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?”

Before reading this book, I was sure I will find and realized what makes my life meaningful in the future. It might be something I have known of but it could also might be something I hadn’t known of today.

However, after reading Paul’s honest thoughts and journey about life and death, I’m not so sure anymore. Paul– a neurosurgeon and now, also a writer, can’t stop asking himself the question of what makes life meaningful enough to go on living. ‘Family’ is my most meaningful things in my life. But is that it? Are there no more drive force aside from the family I love?

Maybe this will be a question most people will end up asking themselves to in the end of the day. Will we got answers? Who knows. Might as well live until the last drop of our life to find out.

More Personal Review

I might forget about the detail plot in When Breath Becomes Air but I will never forget about Paul Kalinithi even though I just ‘read’ him out in the book. I am sure I will forever remember Paul’s struggle, dedication, devastation, love, bravery and hope. At first, I thought this book will be heartbreaking enough to send tears running down my cheeks. But then, pages after pages, chapters after chapters gone by and I still haven’t shed any tears.

Sad, yes. Heartbreaking, yes. Devastating, yes. But, there are not evoking tears out of me.

Because in-spite of writing his devastated staged IV lung cancer that destroyed his future, Paul was writing more about how alive he was before the illness strike and how the cancer changed him but nevertheless, he is still living until the very last minute of his life.

Although it held such a dreadful tragedy, When Breath Becomes Air portrays more about being alive rather than dying.

I did cry though. Sobbing even, in the last part of the book.

Paul never let his illness set his boundary. He push himself hard and despite of dying and losing hope, I think it he successfully deliver and transfer the energy of being alive. He successfully write down this one piece that makes me re-think about what life actually is. Reading his journey, I could somehow grasp the emotion of shattered future and of course, I feel sad for Paul too. But I  couldn’t grasp the emotion deeper than a grieving reader.

However, When Breath Becomes Air is the book that begins the emotional ride  A F T E R  finishing the book. 

After managed to read through almost the whole book without shedding any tears (which I believe will be the case until the end), like I stated above, I cried towards the end and the emotion stays long in my heart and I can’t help but to re-played again and again for the scenes I just read moments ago.

During my reads in the book, I feel like something might be missing but I don’t quite know what it is myself to pinpoint it out aloud. But strangely, this book feels complete when I finished reading it and I’m very grateful to be able to read this book.

“Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.”

Author: Celine



12 thoughts on “Book Review : When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi

  1. Wow I thought it would be sad and depressing with death being the topic but it sounds there were many positive things to find in this novel too. I think it’s a great book if it can make you cry and feel in the end, and it’s one that you’ll always remember… Wonderful review!

    Liked by 1 person

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