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When Breath Becomes Air: Book Review

By Thegenaboveme @TheGenAboveMe

When Breath Becomes Air: Book Review

Published 12 January 2016.

Paul Kalanithi was both a man of science and a man of letters with a promising future when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. He had spent years training to be a scientist-doctor-author, only to find that his future largely erased by his cancer. 

Over the next 22 months, his life came into sharp focus as he tried to align his values with how he spent his dwindling time. 

The pages of his memoir make evident Kalanithi's three core values: develop the skill as a neurosurgeon in order to prolong life and quality of that life; read, write and think deeply about what it means to be human; and cherish loved ones.

As a retired English teacher, I particularly enjoyed how he found solace through the pages of literature. In years prior, Kalanithi not only studied biology and medicine, he also earned three degrees in literature and philosophy. His memoir draws on key passages from classic literature, helping him explore his thoughts and feelings. 

His memoir covers those months in some detail, but he also reviews the whole of his life. He died on March 9, 2015 at the age of 37, just eight months after his wife, Lucy, gave birth to their only child, Elizabeth Acadia (aka Cady).

The Epilogue, written by his wife, explains that the book's manuscript was incomplete and had to be pieced together by Lucy and the book's editor. This is understandable, given that Kalanithi was undergoing various treatments and finishing his training so that he could graduation with his MD prior to the cancer disabling him. 

He lost his health the very day of his commencement. I am selfishly grateful that he spent some of his waning time writing material that editors could fashion into this thoughtful, touching memoir. 


Books on the Dying Process

Films about Older Adults Active in the Dying Process
Final Exam: Book Review (author is a surgeon)
Being Mortal: Book Review

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