Even though it is only September, I believe I can say with certainty that When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is by far the most stunning, heart-breaking and beautiful book I will read this year. My greatest fear is that with this review I will not be able to do justice to this work.
In this auto-biography written by himself, Paul Kalanithi–it just strikes me now that it is interesting he does not label himself as Dr. Paul Kalanithi–is finishing up his neurosurgeon/neuroscience residency when he is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer with metastases to the brain and spine.
The book has a prologue written by Abraham Verghese (who himself penned the most excellent book Cutting for Stone) and the epilogue is written by Paul’s wife Lucy. In between the prologue and epilogue are a couple hundred pages divided into two parts: one primarily dedicated to Paul’s childhood (although he touches on that fairly briefly) and journey through medical school, the second on his life post cancer as he struggles to accept his diagnosis and live with it.
It’s a quick read–I finished it in a couple hours, but I also found I simply could not put it down. As a reader we are aware that Paul has been writing these sentences knowing he does not have long to live. This somehow creates an importance and urgency to this book that propels you forward through it.
His writing is both technical (most likely due to his training in medicine) and yet poetic. He philosophizes in a way that isn’t too deep or confusing for the every day man to understand. There were many times when I would stop, go back, re-read a paragraph or sentence because it struck such a deep chord inside of me.
A couple of my favourite quotes are as follows:
“The physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.”
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.”
Nearing the end of the book, he lightly touches on his religious beliefs in a very genuine and gentle way:
“The main message of Jesus, I believed, is that mercy trumps justice every time.”
We know from reading the description on the jacket of the book that Paul died in 2015, 22 months after his diagnosis. Knowing this somehow makes each word and pronouncement that much more weighty.
This book was truly a privilege to read. I can’t write anymore because I feel that one needs to read it for themselves. You will not regret it. Admittedly, you may find yourself relentlessly sobbing during the final couple chapters, but the message is so important for everyone.
“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”
5/5 stars. Don’t pass this one by.