When Breath Becomes Air
Dr. Paul Kalanithi chronicles his life as a doctor, a patient, and finally a man dying from cancer.
Author: Paul Kalanithi, with an epilogue by Lucy Kalanithi
Reader Appeal: Teens and Adults
I don’t often read memoirs—I just get tired of hearing the random details of a stranger’s life and usually give up within 30 pages or so. But the work of Paul Kalanathi seemed to be something different. For starters, he wrote the book as he was dying, and it was finished (by his wife Lucy) and published after his death.
Dr. Paul Kalanathi was a neurosurgeon at Stanford, mid-thirties, married, and on the cusp of a long and notable career as a leader in his field. Then he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, and suddenly went from doctor to patient…to terminal patient. Two years later, in March 2015, he passed away in a hospital room at the hospital where he used to work. He left behind a large family, a wife and infant daughter, and the manuscript for the book, When Breath Becomes Air.
And that’s how I met Dr. Kalanathi, through his book, after his death.
Like I said, I typically avoid memoirs, and When Breath Becomes Air was no exception. I skirted past it when shopping, glancing at the cover, curious, but avoiding like a junior higher embarrassed to ask the girl to dance. Finally I read the jacket copy one day…thought, “This would probably be interesting…” then put it back on the shelf and went on my way. The third time I read the jacket copy, I finally went ahead and bought the book. Then I brought it home and read it all in one sitting.
How else are you supposed to handle something beautiful?
In When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi chronicles his experiences as a man with cancer’s death sentence. He is our guide through the pages of his life as he prepares to face death, and he’s a surprisingly hopeful guide. He wrote with a sense of optimism in the face of grim reality, an eloquent companion on a quest to discover what makes a life worth living.
Along the way we learn of Paul’s childhood in Kingman, Arizona, of his faith that seems a constant presence in both good time and bad. We discover the stories of his training to become a neurosurgeon, of fascinating moments in a doctor’s life. For instance, did you know that when operating on a person’s brain, the patient often must be awake to make sure the doctors don’t accidentally cause brain damage? Or that a needle just millimeters in the wrong direction can actually cause a person to physically feel depression—and that removing that needle can remove the feeling or intense sadness?
And then it comes time for Paul’s end, and thanks to his wife, Lucy, we travel with him from home to hospital for the last time, from hospital to grave, and from grave to life after the death of a dear, loved one. As I said, it is a beautiful, touching, and surprisingly hopeful journey.
I didn’t want to read When Breath Becomes Air, but after finishing it, I wiped away a few tears and found myself very grateful for the life, death, and work of Dr. Paul Kalanithi. This book is easily the best one I’ve in the last year. Maybe longer.
I’d suggest that every parent read When Breath Becomes Air, and that parents share it with any thoughtful teens in the home as well. Parts this memoir are hard to read, yes, and we know it ends in death, but it’s a brilliant work worth sharing—and talking about—with those you love.
Let's Talk About It
Use these questions to spark discussion among family members who are interested in this book:
• What’s your initial reaction after reading When Breath Becomes Air? Describe it.
• Paul Kalanithi was determined to discover “what…makes a virtuous and meaningful life?” What do you think the answer to that question is? Defend your answer.
• What part does your faith play in the way you approach life and death? Explain.
• If you could say anything to Paul Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy, what would you say? Why?
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