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When Breath Becomes Air Review
“What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?”
This book is so many things in one.
When Breath Becomes Air is Paul Kalanithi’s autobiography, published posthumously. It’s obvious right from the beginning Paul was incredibly gifted and hard working, and you follow him from his childhood, to his cancer diagnosis, right to the end of his life. As much as it is a book about death, it is also a book about living, loving and all the things that are truly important in life.
Despite having a wildly successful career in medicine, Paul’s first love was literature, which is evident through his poetic use of language. The first half of When Breath Becomes air is about Paul before his diagnosis, not really knowing what to do with his life and studying literature at university. You really get a feel that Paul was just a normal guy trying to do his best at life and serves as a great contrast to the latter half of the book.
“I don’t believe in the wisdom of children, nor in the wisdom of the old. There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of the living. We are never so wise as when we live in the moment.”
I have a close friend who works in medicine (hi S! <3) and I’m always in awe of the things she has to do day to day as part of her job. Aside from the difficult medical decisions she needs to make, there’s also the emotional and psychological side of medicine. How to tell a patient they have a condition, how to keep a patient’s spirits up when they’re in pain, or how to tell a patient that their likelihood of survival isn’t ideal. These are all discussions that I’m sure are incredibly difficult and delicate. How do you keep up a patient’s spirits, let alone your own? I think that medical professionals need to put themselves into a particular headspace in order to keep doing their jobs and not let it get to them, and sometimes that can make them seem a little impersonal, or even uncaring – but this is obviously a necessity on their end. What I love about Paul’s memoir is that he was put in the unique position of being on both sides; the doctor and the patient. There was this incredible contrast of when Paul was a doctor, he tried to not set expectations for his terminal patients because it was too early, or because it wasn’t obvious at the time.. Then, there he was as a patient, begging his doctor for statistics so he could calculate a timeframe and she just wouldn’t give it to him.
“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”
While it seems that the novel would have been deeply depressing, it was actually quite uplifting and wholesome. I actually didn’t cry… until his wife’s epilogue. I can’t imagine how hard it would have been for her but her words were so moving and so hopeful I couldn’t help but cry throughout that whole part. After finishing the book, I looked her up and she’s done some incredible talks which I would definitely recommend checking out! See her Ted Talk below;
The hype around this book is totally worthy. Despite the cancer, Paul lived a very full life and it was so inspiring. It triggers some thoughts about your own mortality and the way you live your life and just makes you want to do better and be better. Totally worth the read.