When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – book review

There’s a certain type of book that makes you feel very uncomfortable with your life. A book that seems to hold up a mirror to reveal life’s very substance, avoid it as one might. A book that makes it hard to fall asleep at night.

But then, once you’re done reading it, you want to recommend it to everyone you know, because you feel that everyone should go through a similar experience. This is one of those books.

I can’t really explain why I reached for this book – I know when I first saw the subject description ( a memoir written by a man dying of cancer), I wasn’t sure it was the sort of book I wanted to read. When I see books with this sort of subject, I tend to think of Szymborska’s poem, “Consolation”  about why Charles Darwin preferred happy endings (translated by Clare Cavanagh)



They say he read novels to relax,

But only certain kinds:

nothing that ended unhappily.

If anything like that turned up,

enraged, he flung the book into the fire.


he’d had enough of dying species,

the triumphs of the strong over the weak,

the endless struggles to survive,

all doomed sooner or later.

He’d earned the right to happy endings,

at least in fiction


On most days, my preference for happy endings is much like Darwin’s. I tend not to read books with unhappy endings if I can avoid them. But I suppose, this book is not fiction, and therefore there are no excuses for avoiding it.

In any case,  I relented. I don’t regret it one bit.

Paul Kalanithi’s memoir is a close examination of his particular illness – Kalanithi died of lung cancer at the age of 37. It is also an account of a man wrestling with the meaning of life. Kalanithi earned degrees in both English Literature and biology only later decided to specialize as a neurosurgeon precisely because “neurosurgery seemed to present the most challenging and direct confrontation with meaning, identity, and death.”.

All throughout this book, there is a sense of “time’s winged chariot drawing near”, an awareness of the irrevocable fact of death but also the beauty and the fragility of human life. Kalanithi writes os his efforts as a doctor:

“Our patients’ lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

Kalanithi’s life was full of ceaseless striving towards perfection and his book is a worthy tribute to both his ferocious intellect and his sense of moral duty. It is also a hint at what one might want to do with our lives in the face of our own fleeting existence.

5 thoughts on “When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – book review

  1. Wonderful review! I love reading about death and people coming to terms with mortality, so I’m definitely gonna read this at some point. Thanks for reminding me 😛

    Liked by 1 person

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