When Breath Becomes Air (★★★★☆)

When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi  *  Random House  *  January 12, 2016  *  256 Pages

After completing twelve years of training at various impressive institutions (Cambridge, Yale, and Stanford), Paul Kalanithi is finally ready to graduate and become the neurosurgeon he has worked so hard to be when he is diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. He is only 34, and his prognosis isn’t good:  he can expect to live six months to two years. When Breath Becomes Air is his account of his life post-diagnosis. More specifically, it’s his attempt to process and come to terms with his surprising fate, and then understand and communicate what he believes gives life meaning.

This is an honest and raw memoir–yet it’s also one of the most restrained memoirs I’ve ever read. Kalanithi is so polite, so quietly contemplative–ever the observer, even of his own death. He isn’t afraid to talk about the tough stuff, sure, but only when he can turn it into a philosophical discussion. I could tell that he was afraid of dying, but he never whined or cursed or lost it or lashed out. Eventually, I came to understand (or suspect) that he desperately wanted to keep it together for his wife and child. This book may be about death and dying, but Kalanithi is never not in control.

The only exception to that restraint came in the last paragraph at the very end of the book, when Kalanithi writes a message to his one-year old daughter. I pretty much lost it at that point…and then continued to lose it while reading the epilogue, where Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy, writes about his death (at age 36, two years after his diagnosis) and legacy. In the epilogue, especially, I got a true sense of how Kalanithi was perceived by his family, friends, and colleagues. It solidified my perception of him as an impressive, intelligent, thoughtful, courageous, and kind man.

Ultimately, this was an engaging and deeply sad book. It was less emotional, and more subtle and philosophical, than I was expecting. But there is no doubt that Kalanithi’s words will profoundly impact a lot of people.

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