When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, 2016

Air breath .pngAmazon Link

A brain surgeon about to complete his training and begin a promising research career is diagnosed with terminal cancer.  The book is essentially an extended essay on his life from shortly before the diagnosis until his death.  He is faced with the fact that the career for which he labored endlessly will slip away, the fact that he will not be able to maintain his relationship with his wife, or the daughter they decided to have with full knowledge of his illness.  He must shift from physician to patient, and hand his care over to others.

I’m not sure why the book became such a large success.  I don’t feel that Kalanithi shed much additional light on end-of-life issues by virtue of being a physician.  He perhaps had a better grasp of what his prognosis and treatment options were than your average person, but that didn’t provide him with any advantage in facing death and the horrible choices it brought—but maybe that’s the point.

It’s not that the book is poorly written or uninteresting, but it didn’t seem to evoke much feeling in me as a reader.  I think The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy sheds more light on the issue, and is certainly more emotional.

It was interesting to watch a Google Talk by the author’s surviving wife, also a physician.  I would recommend that people watch the talk before reading the book.

Ideas per Page:1 (3/10), low

Related Books: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, and How We Die by Sherwin B. Newland

Recommend to Others: No

Reread Personally: No

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.


One thought on “When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, 2016

  1. Thank you for writing this review! I had a different response when I read the book. I agree, as a physician, Kalanithi did’t shed much light on end of life issues. However, as a human being, fully embracing the reality of his lived experience, he did.

    Perhaps one reason for the book’s popularity is it addresses the elephant in the room. By and large, western culture does its best to ignore a simple fact: I will die, those closest to me will die, everyone will die.

    Kalanithi was a “good guy,” from a “good family,” with access to the best healthcare, himself a shining star in the field that should have given him an edge over cancer. Yet, with so many advantages, he still died; proving an inevitable truth: Ultimately, no one cannot out run death.

    Paul died, I will die. What matters in this story is Paul Kalanithi died how he lived, fully engaged. The question is: How do I want to die? Whatever my answer is calls me to live that way in this moment and the next and the next.

    Thanks for inspiring me to revisit my commitment to live until I die, so I can die living!

    Peace, DTM
    PS I would love to read The Death of Ivan Ilych, but I am still reading The Moral Animal!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s