When Breath Becomes Air is a cathartic piece of literature to be shared with everyone. Here’s why you should read Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s incredible memoir.
When Breath Becomes Air was highly recommended to me by a friend. When she first told me about it, I was interested, but shortly after that conversation, it just became a thought in the past. A couple days later, I thought about it and decided to buy the book on Amazon. When it arrived, it just sat on my bedside table for months. When I moved, it got placed in a box and was forgotten about. However, the other night, I was feeling discouraged and unsuccessful with my medical school applications, and then I remembered that I had this book. I pulled it off my shelf and immediately began reading, and I didn’t finish until I read every last word that Dr. Paul Kalanithi and Dr. Lucy Kalanithi had written.
This is the type of book that you read when you need something cathartic.
It’s the type of book that makes you stop reading for a moment because tears are streaming down your face.
It’s the type of book that makes you reflect upon your own life.
It makes you wonder if what you’re doing is what you want to do.
And most importantly, it makes you feel at peace.
I’m not going to spoil this book. Reading this book made me feel at peace with my personal struggles, and I want you to have that opportunity, too.
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Dr. Paul Kalanithi was a 36-year-old neurosurgery resident in his final year of training at Stanford University when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. You can find his personal biography here.
Dr. Kalanithi is an absolutely eloquent writer. In When Breath Becomes Air, he beautifully describes his life as a child through the final days of his life. He writes about his huge love for literature and the reason why he decided to go to medical school instead of pursuing a PhD in English.
After Dr. Kalanithi was diagnosed with terminal cancer, it was inherently sad and devastating. He was struggling to figure out how to proceed with his life, whether he wanted to be both doctor and patient in his own prognosis, what he wanted to spend his remaining days doing, etc. He reflects on his own life and illustrates it with metaphors and descriptions unmatched by anything I’ve ever read.
There’s a point in his prognosis where things seem to be getting better. I don’t want to say too much without spoiling the book, but obviously since this book was published posthumously, that didn’t last. Anyway, during this point in time, he continued his work as a surgeon, but after a while, his illness became so overwhelming and painful that he had to stop. Dr. Kalanithi vividly describes his last day as a surgeon, and from one reader to another, though it was extremely heartbreaking to read, I felt honored that he shared such a profound moment with us. Though facing a horrible diagnosis, he continued his search for what makes life worth living.
You can't ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.
When Breath Becomes Air
After I finished this book, this quote is the one that I remember the best. When I read it in the book, I took a second to reread and understand it. I’ve taken a couple of calculus classes, and asymptotes used to be the bane of my existence. I would’ve never believed that something positive could be said about them, but this quote proves otherwise. If you don’t know what an asymptote is, let me explain. An asymptote is a line that approaches a curve as they both head toward infinity. However, the line will never get there; it will just get closer and closer as long as time goes on. To sum it up, though we will never be perfect, we can (and should) try to get as close as we possibly can.
Dr. Kalanithi died before he finished his book. In the book, there is a chapter where his wife, Lucy Kalanithi, chronicles Paul’s last day alive. This is the section that was the most heartbreaking and gut-wrenching for me. Even as I type these words now, I can’t help but feel a little emotional. The chapter was so beautiful and yet so sad at the same time. It was the chapter where I cried the most.
I followed up this book by reading this post in the New York Times. It's an excerpt written by Lucy Kalanithi a few months after Paul died. I almost cried while reading it, too.
This is a book that you will never forget. As you read along, there will be moments where you’ll stop in your tracks but will continue onwards as that’s exactly what Paul did - “I can’t go on. I will go on."
I tried my best not to spoil anything, and so I’ve left out so many details! I want you to have the same experience that I did when I read this awesome book, and I knew almost nothing about it when I read it, so that’s why I omitted as much as possible. Have I convinced you to read this incredible piece of literature? Let me know!
Pick up a copy of this breathtaking book, read it, and tell me your thoughts. As always, share this post with your friends and let me convince them why they should read When Breath Becomes Air, too.
**Featured image c/o Paul Kalanithi