There is a certain species of books that get to the deepest parts of your soul and make you ask yourself questions so profound that they leave a significant imprint on you. “When Breath Becomes Air” is exactly this type of book – a memoir of a brilliant man faced with a heartbreaking fate.
In a nutshell
When Breath Becomes Air tells the story of Paul, a neurosurgeon who was living the life he dreamt of – he was close to becoming professor and had a lovely family. Everything changed when Paul became a patient himself after being diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He started writing his memoir after being diagnosed and the book was published 10 months after he passed away.
The story itself is witty and thought-provoking, and I will let you discover Paul’s memoir when you read the book. It is less sad than you might think, given the circumstances. There are 2 aspects of the story that I want to share with you – Paul’s academic path and his decision to write the book.
Paul had very interesting and diverse academic interests. First he studied English Literature at Stanford University, and then he got interested in philosophical questions regarding mortality of human beings. That’s how he got to study Philosophy of Science at University of Cambridge. Only after that he decided to get closely involved in people’s lives in times of suffering and started studying Medicine at Yale, where he specialized in Neurosurgery. What a journey!
“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” (Paul Kalanithi)
Writing the book
Regarding Paul’s decision to write the book, I find it fascinating that in the hardest times he got back to his first “love” – writing. Before being ill, he was actually planning to be a doctor for some time, and then retire to be a full-time writer … so the illness short-circuited his career path. Paul worked on the manuscript for about 1 year – the last year of his life. Because the book was unfinished when he died, the final chapter is written by Lucy, Paul’s wife, and it is a moving epilogue to the whole story.
When Breath Becomes Air is a touching story about time and identity, about suffering and meaning, about teamwork between doctors and patients. Be prepared for an intense reading experience that will face you with questions regarding mortality and fate, that will make you smile and most probably also shed some tears.
‘Till next time … happy reading!
Additional source of information – Video interview of Lucy
Cover image adapted from GatesNotes.com. Book cover image from BookQuoteMonster.wordpress.com. Image of Kalanithi family from NPR.org