Summary and book reviews of When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air

by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
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  • Published:
    Jan 2016, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Book Summary

Winner of the 2016 BookBrowse Nonfiction Award

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 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.

Excerpt
When Breath Becomes Air

A few years later, I hadn't thought much more about a career but had nearly completed degrees in English literature and human biology. I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain. Meaning, while a slippery concept, seemed inextricable from human relationships and moral values. T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land resonated profoundly, relating meaninglessness and isolation, and the desperate quest for human connection. I found Eliot's metaphors leaking into my own language. Other authors resonated as well. Nabokov, for his awareness of how our suffering can make us callous to the obvious suffering of another. Conrad, for his hypertuned sense of how miscommunication between people can so profoundly impact their lives. Literature not only ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
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?

Use these discussion questions to guide your book club discussion of When Breath Becomes Air….

  1. How did you come away feeling, after reading this book? Upset? Inspired? Anxious? Less afraid?
  2. What did you think of Paul's exploration of the relationship between science and faith? As Paul wrote, "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 ...

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    BookBrowse Awards
    2016

Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Underlying the bare biographical narrative is the author's incredible curiosity about the meaning of life. "Where did biology, morality, literature, and philosophy intersect?" he ponders. As the book progresses, it becomes more philosophical, searching for what it takes for people to find significance in their existence as it becomes apparent their time is finite.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Full Review (708 words).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

This deeply moving memoir reveals how much can be achieved through service and gratitude when a life is courageously and resiliently lived.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity

Author Blurb Atul Gawande
Rattling, heartbreaking, and ultimately beautiful, the too-young Dr. Kalanithi's memoir is proof that the dying are the ones who have the most to teach us about life.

Author Blurb Ann Patchett
Thanks to When Breath Becomes Air, those of us who never met Paul Kalanithi will both mourn his death and benefit from his life. This is one of a handful of books I consider to be a universal donor - I would recommend it to anyone, everyone.

Reader Reviews

cak

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR
The patient, the surgeon, the family, the friends--one reads about and feels it from each perspective. And, the feelings reach down to a deep level.

Lynne Sales

Touching memoir
Young, talented, hardworking neurosurgeon is diagnosed with lung cancer. This is his memoir about his pursuit of the meaning of life, and death, while continuing to treat patients who themselves are facing life threatening illnesses. Contemplative ...   Read More

Jody Fitzpatrick

REview: When Breath becomes Air
Having heard and read much about this book, I was disappointed in reading it. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Most of the book was about the details of neurosurgery and didn't relate sufficiently to his purpose of learning more about death. ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Lung Cancer

The late Paul Kalanithi, a non-smoking neurosurgeon, was diagnosed with squamous cell lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is his autobiography.

"Cancer" is a name given to a collection of diseases in which a set of cells in the body begin dividing abnormally and without stopping. Unlike their healthy counterparts, cancer cells lack the mechanism that tells them to stop multiplying, as well as the process known as programmed cell death (aka "apoptosis"), which gets rid of unneeded cells. These damaged cells eventually crowd out the good and may lead to death if the condition can't be treated.

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in men (following prostate cancer) and women (after breast cancer). About 221,200 new cases of ...

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