Book review: When Breath Becomes Air

Jasmit Thind

When Breath Becomes Air is the memoir Paul Kalanithi had hoped to write in his old age. In this book he reflects on his personal history, experience and the profession that he loved as a neurosurgeon. The book is a poignant journey of a young man born in America and he sets an example of the modern American dream. By any measure, his life before diagnosis was a charmed one, not without challenge but full of privilege and fulfilment.

After he was diagnosed with lung cancer, the question that preoccupied him in early age was – What makes life meaningful? Dissatisfied with the mere science of his illness, it is morality he returns to. The book has many instances where his physical disability empowers him, he is fully alive despite physical collapse but he remains vigorous, open and full of hope. This spirit of purpose and facing each day and making it meaningful keeps the writer gripped to the end.

Although he has an interesting but short career which he describes in the book, he remained a student for most part ultimately settling as a neurosurgeon. After being diagnosed with cancer, he tried to give guidance of the painful journey of this dreaded disease.

Towards the end of the book, Kalanithi ponders about the many moments of life where you must give an account of yourself and what you meant to the world. It’s a book that leaves the reader full hearted and misty eyed, as one is moved by humanity’s accomplishments and at the same time enriched by insights provided by Kalanithi and his transformation – from a neurosurgeon at Stanford working with the brain to being a patient and a new father confronting his own morality.

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Paul Kalanithi with his wife and child (Photo courtesy:

Kalanithi and his wife decided to have a child as his cancer stabilized temporarily. Sadly, he succumbed to his illness and died in March 2015. The book is a must read for all those who admire the human spirit. Although he wasn’t a natural writer, he tried well and it is brilliant debut. He comes across as a good doctor, husband and father.

The long afterword is written by his wife who is a doctor herself and is a more natural writer. Her ability to convey emotion without getting too lyrical is excellent. She in fact gives a real narrative of events that are heart wrenching. Overall, this book makes for a good read of a man’s journey cut short and it leaves a void in the heart of the reader.


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