When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air
by Paul Kalanithi


Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir

Summary: Paul Kalanithi was a determined, fiercely smart man that had a fascination with life, philosophy, literature and medicine.  These interests led him to study at Stanford and into neurosurgery.  Medicine gave him the what and the how and literature offered the why.  However, in his final months before completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Kalanithi discovers he has terminal cancer at the age of thirty-six.  This memoir gives Kalanithi the platform to share with the reader his reason for pursuing neuroscience as his profession and how it aided him in learning to fully live at the end of his life.

There is one concrete, undeniable truth that unites every human being on the earth: no one is immortal and one day, we all will face our own mortality.  Though this is a universal truth, most people do not like to talk about it.

But Dr. Paul Kalanithi was intrigued, even entranced by the human brain as well as finding the meaning of life.  He felt like there seemed to be a connection between the human brain and finding meaning in the world we live in.  “I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion.”

“Like my own patients, I had to face my mortality and try to understand what made my life worth living…Torn between being a doctor and a patient, delving into medical science and and turning back to literature for answers, I struggled, while facing my own death, to rebuild my old life–or perhaps find a new one.”

While discussing this with my book club, someone brought up the truth that Paul changed from being the medical expert in the field of neuroscience to an expert in being a patient heading towards death.  He could explain in medical terms all that was happening, but then he began to experience them.  “It occurred to me that my relationship with statistics suddenly changed when I became one.”

Paul’s pursuit of truth and meaning within the realms of science and literature were fascinating to observe.  His brilliance comes through in his writing, but it is his genuine and authentic humanity that is captivating in the pages.  His honesty and humility about his own mortality are set like a plate in front of you and you cannot escape acknowledging the question he set out to answer: knowing death is imminent, how do you truly live?

My rating: 5 stars

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What are some ways you focus on truly living in your own life?  Is there anyone in your life that has challenged you to live your life more fully?