Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi (Gale Cengage Learning, 2016)

How to classify this book? It’s a contemplation of life and death. It’s a love letter to a wife and daughter. It’s a poem of praise to the beauty of the world and a rage against the fragility of the human body.

Paul Kalanithi was thirty-six, months away from completing his gruelling residency as a neurosurgeon, when he was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. Suddenly his entire life has shifted, his every plan spun out of his control as he is forced to face his own mortality.

Kalanithi writes beautifully and the book flies by as he details his life before and then after his diagnoses. He is honest and straightforward and expresses himself with the clarity of a man who knows he doesn’t have long to live.

What I found most interesting is a question that Kalanithi keeps returning to: How does the length of your life determine your actions? What would you do today if you knew you had only days left to live? What if you had weeks or months or years? If you have ten years left to live how does that effect your job? Your marriage? If you have one year left to live do you quit your job? Do you write that book?

We will all die. We know this even if that fact seems abstract. For many of us, we hope and assume that our death is far in the future. Yet no one is guaranteed any length of time in this life. Knowing he will die of cancer doesn’t necessarily change Kalanithi’s daily life and, at the same time, changes anything.

This isn’t a work of great philosophy or full of answers. It is one man’s thoughtful contemplation and it’s worthy of reading. It’s a reminder that each life is precious and sacred and full or promise.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi”

    1. They are some big and important questions, I think, but he doesn’t approach them in a frightening manner. It’s hard to read at points because you know that he loses his life so young. Thanks for reading!

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