Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Rating: ★★★★★

Spoiler-Free Review

I haven’t read very many nonfiction books, much less memoirs, but I absolutely loved this book. 

It’s written by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who, after being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, decided to write a memoir recounting his journey of trying to understand the meaning of life. What do you do when you don’t have time? How do you live fulfillingly? What’s worth giving up at the face of death?

From the start, Kalanithi’s curiosity was so clearly authentic. Pondering the meaning of life once you realize you don’t have much time—it’s such a quiet, even selfless reaction to the sense of urgent desperation the individual likely feels. The interesting thing about Kalanithi, though, is that he’d already been living a life guided by this question. Whether it was as he fell in love with books and studied literature, or as he ended up researching neuroscience and becoming a doctor, he’d constantly pursued different experiences in search of any bit of insight they could give him.

It was also interesting to see how his ideals changed overtime. For the most part, Kalanithi seemed like a very principled man, knowing what he believed and believing it fiercely. Still, he recognized the complexity of life and embraced that different circumstances demanded different—even if contradictory—worldviews from him. I guess this journey throughout the book is, in itself, a sort of answer to what being human means.

On a more technical note, I really loved the writing style of the book. The story flowed well and constantly intrigued me, with the imagery vivid and graphic when it was necessary. I’ve seen some people say that he used a lot of unnecessary purple prose, but I think each description held a lot of import and established a sort of contemplative mood. 

I read some reviews after finishing the book, and I noticed a decent number of readers mentioned how the book exuded a sense of privilege. I mean, I guess this is technically true, but especially since this book was a memoir, a story about one man and his relationship with death, I don’t feel comfortable just dismissing the book’s value simply because “it could’ve been worse.” His story was raw and authentic, and while it probably holds a lot more impact for some than others, there’s still something to be learned from Kalanithi’s introspection. Every book its reader, I guess.

I’d recommend this book to anyone, and especially to those that enjoy memoirs or are curious about a more philosophical approach to medicine.

A physician’s words can ease the mind, just as the neurosurgeon’s scalpel can ease a disease of the brain. Yet their uncertainties and morbidities, whether emotional or physical, remain to be grappled with.

Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

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