When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air

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...

Title:When Breath Becomes Air
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Edition Language:English

When Breath Becomes Air Reviews

  • Elyse

    1/12/16: Update: Just wanted to mention that this book goes on sale today. Its an amazing story!

    Paul Kalanithi studied literature at Stanford University. For his thesis, he studied

    the work of Walt Whitman, a poet , who a century before, was possessed by the same questions that haunted him. Kalanithi wanted to find a way to understand and describe what he termed "the Physiological-Spiritual Man."

    Kalanithi had a passion for literature. He began to see language as an almost supernatural force, ex

    1/12/16: Update: Just wanted to mention that this book goes on sale today. Its an amazing story!

    Paul Kalanithi studied literature at Stanford University. For his thesis, he studied

    the work of Walt Whitman, a poet , who a century before, was possessed by the same questions that haunted him. Kalanithi wanted to find a way to understand and describe what he termed "the Physiological-Spiritual Man."

    Kalanithi had a passion for literature. He began to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in

    centimeter-thick skulls, into communion.

    "There must be a way, I thought, that the language of life as experienced – – of passion, hunger, of love – – bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracks, and heartbeats."

    Paul Kalanithi's thesis was well-received -- but neuroscience as literary criticism didn't quite fit in the English Department. ( nor did he). There was a question he couldn't let go of. "Where did Biology, morality, literature, and philosophy intersect?".

    Kalanithi consulted a premed advisor - set aside his passion for literature - and figured out the logistics to get ready for medical school. He was still searching for answers to the question "what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay?"

    When he was in his fourth year medical school, he watched many classmates choose to specialize in less demanding areas, (radiology or dermatology for example). It puzzled him that many students focused on lifestyle specialities--those with more humane hours, higher salaries, and lower pressures. For himself, he chose neurosurgery as a specialty.

    Kalanithi was diagnosed with Cancer. ( he actually was almost certain he had cancer many months before getting an X-Ray or MRI). Once it was clear that the cancer had invaded multiple organ systems--( "severe illness wasn' life altering--it was life shattering"), decisions needed to be made. His wife Lucy, father, siblings, doctors were all involved - and chemo would start soon.

    Clarifying the rest of his life ( only age 36 at the time), was going to be a process.

    He and Lucy went to visit a sperm bank to preserve gametes and options. They had planned on having kids at the end of his residency.

    To think. Paul Kalanithi wrote this book - relentlessly- fueled with purpose during the last year of his life -- never got to finish his life's plan..( yet he still worked that last year).... But he was racing against time. With this book - he was hoping to confront death - examine it- accept it-- as a physician and a patient. He wanted to help other people understand death and face their mortality. "It's not exotic..but tragic enough and imaginable enough he says".

    There is a beautiful - but so sad- Epilogue by Lucy - from Paul's wife at the end of the book. Their baby had been born eight months before Paul died - March 9th, 2015.

    Lucy reports that Paul let himself be vulnerable and comforted by family and friends.. and even when terminally ill, he remained fully alive!

    Thank You Random House, Netgalley, and Paul ( and Lucy), Kalanithi

  • Aisling

    Oh dear. I was always told not to speak ill of the dead. It feels awful to give a three star rating to a nice guy (by all accounts) who is now dead. But I simply did not find this book compelling or insightful enough. It is mildly interesting to learn about neurosurgery as a specialty and to read the author's thoughts as he faced diagnosis, illness and then death. I always felt that the author was holding back; that it was too clinical, too calm, just not passionate enough. The first time I felt

    Oh dear. I was always told not to speak ill of the dead. It feels awful to give a three star rating to a nice guy (by all accounts) who is now dead. But I simply did not find this book compelling or insightful enough. It is mildly interesting to learn about neurosurgery as a specialty and to read the author's thoughts as he faced diagnosis, illness and then death. I always felt that the author was holding back; that it was too clinical, too calm, just not passionate enough. The first time I felt that I was reading something worthwhile was in the 26 page epilogue by the author's wife. I guess the best way to say it is this; this is a quick read. And of course it should not be.

  • Iris P

    Sharing this interesting New York Times interview with Dr. Lucy Kalanithi.

    She sounds like a very special person too:

    ***********************************************

    Upgrading this to 5 stars, not sure why I didn't before

    ***********************************************

    After finishing this profound, emotional memoir I feel like I lost a good friend.

    Thank you Paul Kalanithi for this beautiful gift you left for us, wherever you are...

    Sharing this interesting New York Times interview with Dr. Lucy Kalanithi.

    She sounds like a very special person too:

    ***********************************************

    Upgrading this to 5 stars, not sure why I didn't before

    ***********************************************

    After finishing this profound, emotional memoir I feel like I lost a good friend.

    Thank you Paul Kalanithi for this beautiful gift you left for us, wherever you are...

    I was going to try to write a longer review but my mind is not into it these days.

    All I can say this book will stay with me for a long time and everything good you've heard about how amazing it's well deserved.

    Sad, poignant, raw, beautiful...

  • Diane S ☔

    As I finished this book with tears running down my face I asked myself, "Why did you read this book? You know it was going to be sad, how could a man dying of lung cancer before the age of forty be anything but." Yet to just classify this memoir, to classify this novel as such is to devalue the man he was. He was a lover of literature, a neurosurgeon, a scientist, a son and brother, a husband and father. He tried to live each day to the best of his ability, he helped many and he acknowledged the

    As I finished this book with tears running down my face I asked myself, "Why did you read this book? You know it was going to be sad, how could a man dying of lung cancer before the age of forty be anything but." Yet to just classify this memoir, to classify this novel as such is to devalue the man he was. He was a lover of literature, a neurosurgeon, a scientist, a son and brother, a husband and father. He tried to live each day to the best of his ability, he helped many and he acknowledged the doctor patient relationship had a big disconnect with the reality of life, how their lives would change after being diagnosed with a serious illness. He was not a saint, he cried when given a death sentence, but his thoughts were not always for him, he always wanted to make sure his wife had a life after he was gone. So in many ways this was a profoundly beautiful read by a remarkable man.

    His wife says it best, "What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy."

  • Jen

    Unforgettable is what Verghese says in his foreword. I agree and am fighting for my own breath to write my thoughts about this stunning memoir that has left me gasping for air. The writing. The emotion. The beauty in the darkness of dying.

    I mourn the death of this writer, a surgeon of great potential. A doctor of great compassion. But the message he has left us is quite eloquently simple: make life as meaningful as you can in the time you have. Be grateful.

    The touching epilogue his wife Lucy w

    Unforgettable is what Verghese says in his foreword. I agree and am fighting for my own breath to write my thoughts about this stunning memoir that has left me gasping for air. The writing. The emotion. The beauty in the darkness of dying.

    I mourn the death of this writer, a surgeon of great potential. A doctor of great compassion. But the message he has left us is quite eloquently simple: make life as meaningful as you can in the time you have. Be grateful.

    The touching epilogue his wife Lucy wrote.

    My tears runneth over. 5⭐️ - have upped this. This one will stay with me for a long while.

  • Maxwell

    I don't think you should read this book because the story of an incredibly gifted man who had his life taken away at such a young age might give you the motivation to live life more fully. I think you should read this book because that talented, inspiring man has incredibly important things to say derived from his own experiences, and it's important to listen and learn from them.

    Read this book with the knowledge that you might not always be able to understand everything someone goes through, bu

    I don't think you should read this book because the story of an incredibly gifted man who had his life taken away at such a young age might give you the motivation to live life more fully. I think you should read this book because that talented, inspiring man has incredibly important things to say derived from his own experiences, and it's important to listen and learn from them.

    Read this book with the knowledge that you might not always be able to understand everything someone goes through, but you can set aside the time to listen to their story and hopefully give them the dignity and respect they deserve as a human being, in life or death.

    -Paul Kalanithi

  • Petra Eggs

    I finished the book. I'm glad that I perservered with it. It's quite an odd book and an overall rating might be the sum of the parts, but is not going to reflect the writing or content of those parts.

    The first part, the foreword, by Abraham Verghese, was verbose, hagiographic and contradictory

    . He said he didn't know the author at all until after his death. Then he says well he did meet him and they had a long email correspondence. And so it goes.

    I finished the book. I'm glad that I perservered with it. It's quite an odd book and an overall rating might be the sum of the parts, but is not going to reflect the writing or content of those parts.

    The first part, the foreword, by Abraham Verghese, was verbose, hagiographic and contradictory

    . He said he didn't know the author at all until after his death. Then he says well he did meet him and they had a long email correspondence. And so it goes. He says it's the foreword but should be the afterword. Verghese must have sat there with a thesaurus composing endless sentences of praise for the author, who had, like most of us, never accomplished anything much out of the ordinary. I dnf'd this part and give it a whole, rounded-up 1 star.

    The second part, I feel churlish writing this, I really do. The author had an interesting career in his short life, mostly as a student. He had a MA in English Literature, another MA in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine, a BSc in Human Biology and finally an MD from Yale, before going on to be a neurosurgeon.

    It was in his brief career as a neurosurgeon and scientist he was diagnosed with cancer. He tried his best to be introspective and give guidance through the exponentially-increasing awfulness that is the journey through this dread disease. The problem was, he wasn't a natural writer although he'd wanted to be one all his life. Hi prose might have been just the stuff of essays at his Ivy League universities, but to me it is reminiscent of a writers' group where each attempt to outdo each other with portent-laden phrases and lots of deep literary references. It was tedious in parts. But... he did his best and he was a good doctor, husband and father, and this was only his debut book. Five stars for the man, but three stars, just, for this central section of the book.

    The long afterword is written by his widow. She is a doctor too, but could easily be a writer. She just has 'it' and her late husband, who wanted it so much, didn't. She rounds out the story he told, and continued on at length in the most interesting and well-written part of the book. Her ability to convey emotion without getting either lyrical or sappy was excellent. Five stars. Dr. Lucy Kalanithi should have been credited as co-author. I hope she goes on writing

    It won't make sense to read the last part without the second, but you can easily skip the foreword, all it adds is unnecessary verbiage and lots of pages to make it look more than just the thin tome it really is.

    ________________

    An example of the really rather awful writing that got me down. You may disagree, you may feel that the three words I suggest - dawn came up, are no substitute for the 150 poetic, lyrical, descriptive ones the author wrote instead. I'm too hard, right?

  • Maggie Stiefvater

    A gasping, desperate, powerful little book, bigger on the inside than outside.

    It's a little bit about dying, but more about being alive.

  • Sabaa Tahir

    Never has a book turned me into a sad sobbing mess so quickly. Philosophical, beautiful, moving, difficult, heartbreaking. Highly, HIGHLY recommend.

  • Justin

    I read this almost two months ago and realized I never reviewed it. When I finished the book, I just couldn't review it. It's a small book, but it's powerful. I didn't shed any tears at the end of it, but I remember sitting there physically shaking and feeling really numb and tingly. A book has never impacted me that way before, and I'm not even sure why I read the book in the first place since I knew what I was getting myself into.

    Wait, I know why I wanted to read it. It was very therapeutic f

    I read this almost two months ago and realized I never reviewed it. When I finished the book, I just couldn't review it. It's a small book, but it's powerful. I didn't shed any tears at the end of it, but I remember sitting there physically shaking and feeling really numb and tingly. A book has never impacted me that way before, and I'm not even sure why I read the book in the first place since I knew what I was getting myself into.

    Wait, I know why I wanted to read it. It was very therapeutic for me. I don't want to pull back the curtain too far on my life, but I've seen the havoc cancer causes out of nowhere in people's lives. People very close to me. I've held my grandmother's hand as she took her last breath after battling pancreatic cancer. My grandfather wasn't far behind her thanks to cancer in his lungs and throat. My dad has been battling colon cancer for the last two years. He's up and down. I think chemo does more bad than good. It's definitely taken its toll on him, but he's fighting.

    All this cancer and death hitting so close to home left me in this weird phase two years ago where I got to learn what a panic attack feels like. It's like having a heart attack, but not really, but close. It's scary. I think cancer blasting through my family while I was in the process of trying to move across the country just really shook me up. I still deal with the effects of it sometimes.

    I think God was just trying to show me there are some things in life I can't control. I can pick my job, my house, what to watch on Netflix, but I have no power over death or cancer or a heart attack or a car crash or any of it.

    Yeah

    So this book was helpful. I felt like I really connected with it and it was something I needed to read. You might not have quite the same reaction, but I still highly recommend reading it. Fiction is always great to escape the dark realities of the world we live in, but sometimes confronting those realities head on is extremely beneficial.


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