When Breath becomes Air- A must-read memoir!

When Breath becomes Air- Book Cover


When Breath becomes Air


Paul Kalanithi

Release date:

January 12, 2016



No. of pages:






'When Breath becomes Air' is a 2015 memoir by Dr. Paul Kalaniti, a renowned neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. As a memoir, the book explains more about Dr. Paul's viewpoints rather than his life; and that is not as boring you imagine it to be. In fact, it is exceptional.

Let me first give you a quick synopsis of the book (no spoilers involved!). Dr. Paul Sudhir Arul Kalanithi first provides a quick intro of his life till getting into Yale School for Medicine and later into Stanford. Paul really loved literature and literature, and as you read through the book, you will analyse that his entire volume stands on these two mighty pillars. Well, what lead him to become a doctor was primarily becasue he wanted to achieve the episemology of death. It is a common doubt we all have, and while most of us don't go head-long into getting to know about it, Sudhir really wanted to, which is why he sought after the most difficult part of medicine(quote-unquote by himself), neurosurgery. The rest of the book is well, his amazing and inspiring hourney through coming years.

On reading so far, you will think, well, this is a common pathway. You many even wonder what is new about it. This is where I would like to repeat my aforementioned statement: His book is partly dependent on his use of literature and his outlook on life. It feels so awe-inspiring to read such wonderful statements from a person who combated death and accepted it. A person who wanted to examine death had to wrestle with it, but finally he learnt to not defeat it but accept it. Because who can actually stop God's fate!

The book takes a deep turn for Paul's life when he gets to know he has Stage IV lung cancer. The readers who had been slowly but gradually being taken through the difficulties of recidency and the stories of cases, persons now are travelling through the fate of the cancer-diagnosed Paul. Paul understands that he has to make changes; life is not the same anymore, and his ambitions will never again move on the same track as he wished it to be. He explains how the doctor now becomes a patient. In a way, I think he would have had a better knowledge of death.

As I mentioned earlier, this is not about Paul's life, but how he examines it and finally manages it. His doctrines are the core substance to be taken from this book as a whole. If you start counting his ideologies, I suppose you would never finish. He talks about what a doctor should be as well as his transformation from sojourn ironclad atheism to belief in God. He as well talks about many cases(and many new medical terms and conditions, yaay), as everyone would expect from a physician. But it is not from an emotional point of view, so don't expect that. However, we can quite grasp that Paul tells us physicians should not treat people as cases, but as people.

Now, if I don't talk about the epilogue, then maybe the worth of the book is lost. This epilogue is from none other than his wife, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi; and she ends the book is an emotional finish. I mean what I said there, that epilogue is actually which prompted me temperamental. A few seconds after finishing the book, I was staring into oblivion, as I would like to think, contemplating the unknown. As that unknown has still been deciphered by my mind. Maybe it is the message the book was trying to provide, or maybe it must be just my teenagehood hormonal changes. Anyway, the epilogue covers how Paul died and how he is still alive in Lucy's mind. We kind of appreciate how(spoilers ahead!) Paul got ready to accept his demise after examining and wrestling with it. Many of us would not comphrehend the curtailment of the future and elect to end it there instead of moving along with a painful and unproductive life. We have to give him props for that.

As per the forward by Abraham Verghese, he became more close to Paul after his death. I would like to provide a similar opinion. A complete stranger, who I recognized only through his book(I had wanted to buy this book for years) became the life of the book; and as we finish it, Paul is no longer a stranger, he, in fact, feels like a family member, and the book turns from a hyped material to a wholesome compendium of values instead of a story.

Things I liked about the book:

  1. It is a storehouse of values which are not only restricted to a specific field, but is endless.
  2. You just don't feel like putting it down after finishing it. And it is never boring, ever. You just feel like reading it again, and again, and again and again!
  3. The writing style is epic. And remember this is coming from a person who has a degree in English Literature!
  4. I am not a doctor, and reading a doctor's book was well, a little scary. But, Paul explained most of the medical terms he used in a delicate way, so there was no confusions.
  5. There are not a lot of books which, by its end, leaves you in a mixed of emotions, and I think this belongs to the few. I was impassioned, having a mix of melancholy and motivation; but at the same time having a sort of stupefaction, in fact sort of a temporary Alexithymia.

What I didn't like about the book:

  1. I know the epilogue was supposed to be ended in a motivating way, conveying the mind and emotion of the writer; but, I felt it was a little bit stretched. The last line was a banger though - 'I was his wife and a witness.'.

Now, if I had to ramble about this book further in a most profound way, I would be obliged to do that. But everything has to stop somewhere. I would love to recommend this book to anyone, disregarding age. But human biology says otherwise, I'm afraid. Even a teenager as me had to fumble a bit, to analyse a part of the text; and I can't imagine what it would be like for small children. Nothing wrong with the book, but I think the book can only be truly understood if a person is reading it after a specific age. (I have personal experience, I read 'the Alchemist' at 8 years old, and well, I haven't understood the values it enclosed though I understood the story.). So, yes, if you think your child is better than that, please proceed. On a general sense, I would recommend this book to anyone, literally anyone else. It is a must-read book in fact, because, the book at 4 years old, feels so fresh in its concepts and ideologies. Anyway, highly recommend it.