Review of “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi died of metastatic lung cancer at age 37. When he was diagnosed with the disease in 2013, he set out to write a memoir, with his wife Lucy adding an Epilogue after his March, 2015 death. Because of his life and this book, his legacy will be ongoing, and it is our privilege, as readers, to share his final thoughts.

The story of Kalanithi’s life pulls you in right away. He begins with his diagnosis, and then backtracks to his childhood. All the while, he meditates on the meaning of life and death, particularly when he starts practicing medicine, and especially, when he is diagnosed with cancer:

“’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.’”

His writing is so intimate, so devoid of pretense and social distancing, that by the end, you will feel the devastation of having lost a very close friend, beyond regretting the loss to the world of a genuinely good person.

Evaluation: How do we manage to look death in the eye and face death with integrity? Kalanithi not only tells us, but shows us through the way he lived his final two years after receiving his diagnosis. Many reviews laud this book as life-affirming, and it is. In addition, it is replete with thought-provoking meditations on the meaning of life that have the immediacy and poignancy of one who must answer that question right then, at that moment. The author riffs on literature, shows his sense of humor, and shares many moments of joy. I laughed a lot, but cried more; this book filled me with a profound sadness. Nevertheless, I consider this book to be a must-read, and highly recommend it.

Rating: 5/5

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

The narrators are both excellent, and made me glad I listened to the book.

Published in hardcover by Penguin Randomhouse, 2016. Audio version available (330 minutes) from Penguin Random House Audio, read by Sunil Malhotra and Cassandra Campbell, with a Foreword by Abraham Verghese, 2016.

Dr. Lucy Kalanithi and Dr. Paul Kalanithi with their daughter, Elizabeth Acadia, born 8 months before Paul’s death.

Dr. Lucy Kalanithi and Dr. Paul Kalanithi with their daughter, Elizabeth Acadia, born 8 months before Paul’s death.

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12 Responses to Review of “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

  1. Lovely review. 🙂

  2. I read this book a couple of weeks a go and it broke my heart.

  3. Heather says:

    Wow. Sounds like a must-read but not an easy one.

  4. I’ve heard such great things about this one and plan to read it during Nonfiction November. I didn’t realize he had a tiny daughter when he passed away…that’s so sad.

  5. I’m looking forward to reading this book… almost to the top of the library hold list, but maybe I’ll listen instead. Both narrators are among my favorites.

  6. My mother-in-law died of the same thing two years ago so this sounds really tough to me. I don’t think I could stand an audio that would make me cry as much as I suspect this book would.

  7. Trisha says:

    5/!?! Wow. I’m not sure I can handle this book right now; it seems so emotionally wrenching. I’ll put it on the “when I’m a bit more jaded and less raw” list.

  8. Beth F says:

    Wow, I know I wouldn’t be able to read this. But it does sound powerful.

  9. florinda3rs says:

    I have my review of this audiobook going up on Tuesday, and I’m quoting you in it–I found it just as affecting and recommendable as you did! A gorgeous, and heartbreaking, book.

  10. Rita K. says:

    Lovely book! One I will read again in order to understand all he has to say. His loss is very sad!

  11. litandlife says:

    So kicking myself for not buying this the other day when I had it in my hands!

  12. stacybuckeye says:

    Why are there so many books about death that bloggers are recommending lately? This one looks good, but I seriously need to keep all the sadness I can out of my life at the moment. I will add it to my list to check out later.

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