BOOK REVIEW: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Format: Library book
Links: Goodreads | Amazon UK
Blurb: At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live.

When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student asking what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and a new father.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away?

Paul Kalanithi died while working on this profoundly moving book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.


Review: I don’t really know why I’m bothering to review this. If you’ve already read it, you’ll know that no matter what I say isn’t going to do it justice and if you haven’t read it, believe me when I say my review isn’t going to do it justice. In fact I don’t believe any review will do this stunning book any justice. I read this in 2 sittings. And it was only 2 sittings because I had to go asleep and wasn’t able to finish it in 1. I’m not a non-fiction reader really but I believe this is the sort of book that everyone would benefit from reading.

When Breath Becomes Air is the memoir of neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi. He spends a decade perfecting his craft and training to be a neurosurgeon then one day, he’s diagnosed with inoperable and terminal lung cancer. This book shows us Paul, in his every state of being. A doctor, treating patients. Some dying and navigating his way through the doctor-patient relationship, to becoming one of the dying patients he’s been treating all these years. Paul talks about life, death and the meaning of it all. And what makes a life meaningful.

This book was split into two parts; in the first, Paul talks briefly about his childhood, growing up and school. Moving on to figuring out what he wanted to do with his life and whether his heart lies with medicine or literature. He documents his education into becoming a neurosurgeon and all the trials and tribulations that he faced along the way. I loved this chapter because this was the one where Paul really questions the big life and death questions, when he’s faced with dying patients and patients which rely so heavily on him.

Part two is where Paul flips the switch and the focus is on him, his own cancer and his own questions or mortality, life and meaning. When his own life is now altered by his diagnosis. This was a hard chapter to read about Paul’s decline, his treatments and just the general pain and suffering he felt when his body was riddled with cancer which affected his almost every move. But despite all of that, Paul manages to go back to work as a neurosurgeon for a short time, showing his determination and strength amidst all of this.

The book finishes with a chapter from his wife, Lucy, who “completed” the book after Paul was too ill to continue writing and died before the book really ever got finished. This is the part that broke me in half, hearing his wife’s account of Paul and his strength and attitude towards everything that had happened to him was heart wrenching. The pair were clearly so in love and it was heart breaking to hear her talk about her final weeks and days with Paul and their only 8 month old baby who will grow up never knowing her dad.

I put this book down in floods of tears to the point where I thought, ‘I’m genuinely never going to stop crying over this‘. It’s not that I haven’t read stories, seen films or watched documentaries about people with cancer. I have, plenty but this book struck a chord somewhere deep inside me which I can’t imagine anything else of a similar nature will again. So eloquently written, so honest, so real. Absolutely heart-breaking but utterly profound at the same time. Once I’ve stopped being so sad about this book, I just know that I’m going to be thinking long and hard about some of the issues brought up in it. Love, life, death and what makes a meaningful life. 

* Just as an end note I would say that you should be careful about reading this book if you’re squeamish or triggered by graphic depictions of surgery (there’s a lot of this in the first part). It also sent my health anxiety sky-rocketing at some points which thankfully I managed to subdue so if you suffer from HA, please also be wary, too. 

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85 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

  1. I have lost so many people now I’m a lot older, and shed so many tears, with the best will in the world, I don’t think I’ll read this amazing-sounding book. My heart goes out to his widow and daughter. A good review nevertheless.

  2. Wow, this book sounds incredible. I definitely would be someone crying while reading this, especially with the way you describe the last chapter from his wife. It sounds like such a good read, but if I would be able to handle it is another question! Stuff like this can really get to me, but I would really love to give it a try and read it. Great review 🙂

    Amy,
    https://creativenails.uk

  3. I’ve heard of this book but have never got round to reading it, although I really want to! Your book reviews always describe the story perfectly and make me want to grab myself a copy. It sounds like a book that really makes you appreciate life. I’m adding it to my wish list. Thanks for the fab review Jenny 💖 xx

    Bexa | http://www.hellobexa.com

  4. Jenny, this sounds incredible. I was thinking when I read that his wife wrote the final chapter ‘wow, I bet that’s hard to read’ then you said it ‘broke you’. I can’t even imagine how emotional this read is. But I love non fiction anyway, you’ve definitely made me want to read this!! Great review x

    Sophie
    http://www.glowsteady.co.uk

  5. I had never heard of this book but have bookmarked this post so can add it to my reading list. Your review really resonated with me so I’m sure the book will do wonders and to think it’s something so personal of the author, it definitely sounds like a must read.

    – Soffy // themumaffairs.blogspot.com

  6. Wow this sounds like a powerful book although one I’m not sure I can read after my husband fought cancer last year – it’s all a bit too close to home.

  7. This book had me in TEARS when I read it. My brother recommended it to me and I was just amazed and inspired. Your book reviewed described the book so well. Good job!

    Nikki O.
    herdaringthoughts.blogspot.com

  8. I actually just teared up reading your description of the book, so I can’t imagine how I’ll feel if I actually were to read it. It would get to me for sure.

  9. Great review! I thought it was a wonderful book and an extraordinary tribute to a good man. It’s not the kind of book I usually read, but I’m glad I did. You’re exactly right about the book: “Love, life, death, and the meaning of life!”

  10. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I hope to read this one day, I even ordered it online, but I’m reconsidering due to my own situation. I’m currently going undergoing chemotherapy and I’m not sure the nurses would approve.

  11. I have heard about this book. The truth is I am scared to read it, but as you say, everyone should probably read it. Thank you for this great review.

  12. I love reading your book reviews they’re always so detailed and you always leave me wanting to read the book! I’ve been wanting to read more non fiction so this seems like a great place to start! Thanks for sharing lovely!

    Jess // foundationsandfairytales.wordpress.com
    xx

  13. wow, this book honestly sounds amazing. The fact you said you can’t justify how good it is in this reviews makes me believe that it so really amazing. This is 100% going to be one of the next books I buy, I might not read it straight away because I know it is going to be so sad! Thanks for the review ! xx

  14. I hadn’t heard of this book before reading your post but it definitely sounds like something I’d be interested in reading. I’ve recently started getting into non fiction novels and this sounds like such an incredible book. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

  15. I have not read this book and feel very ignorant because I had never heard of it before. It sounds like a very emotional almost hard story to read. But it be interesting to read someone story from being the one to curing people to the one needing treatment and being powerless despite all their knowledge on the matter

  16. I’ve been recommended this book so many times, I’m almost too scared to read. Being a doctor has made me realise that even though we can be incredibly strong and resilient, we are still very fragile at the heart of it all.
    Mind The Medic

    • I think you should SO read it if you’re a doctor. I’d literally recommend it to everyone but I can imagine being a doctor will be a totally different experience reading this book. Do let me know if you ever do!

  17. Oh boy I really want to read this! However… I have pretty bad anxiety when it comes to medical talk… so I’m wondering if this book would be to intense for me…. BUT I REALLY WANT TO READ IT lol you’ve described this perfectly thank you for sharing!!!

  18. Wow, what a heartbreaking but eye opening story! Like you, I don’t read much non-fiction but this book sounds riveting and a book that everyone needs to pick up at least once! I’m adding it straight onto my Goodreads To-Read list!

    Tabitha xx | whattabithaloves.co.uk

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