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When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air

by Paul Kalanithi

Other authors: Lucy Kalanithi (Epilogue)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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What do you do when you know you are ill and do not know how long you have to live? Paul Kalanithi chose to write a book and have a kid. He chose to spend time with his family. He despaired but he decided he wanted to treasure the remaining months he had. Life is fragile and precious as he thought me, and it is not worth it wallowing in self-pity and constantly worrying about things. ( )
  siok | Apr 9, 2017 |
This book appeared on many lists of the best nonfiction books of 2016. It is an autobiographical account of the author's discovery of his calling to be a neurosurgeon and the tragic interruption of his career by terminal cancer. The author passed away before the book was finished, but his wife offers a moving postscript to his account. ( )
  proflinton | Apr 4, 2017 |
It’s ironic that while discussing death is a taboo subject for many people, books and television programs about death and gruesome accidents are popular and, of course, a huge proportion of novels deal in death too.

Still, this isn’t a novel but a true-life account of a man’s aspiring career and his fight against life-threatening cancer. For me this was largely unappealing. I found Paul Kalanithi’s writing too egocentric, too much an account of just how capable he was and while others no doubt have found depth in his writing, I found too much repetition and too many clichés (‘Some patients you can’t save. Others you can’). In his wife’s part at the end she speaks of his ‘solitary’ voice and this is perhaps a less judgemental way of describing the tone. Certainly her part for me was the most moving, adding to Kalanithi’s character a greater humanity. For, as he studied death and associated subjects like faith, I didn’t feel myself engaged or extended.

Still, it did seem to me that he was somewhat elitist such as when he finds many doctors make specialising choices on life’s demands – ‘I gathered data from several elite medical schools and saw that the trends were the same: by the end of medical school, most students tended to focus on “lifestyle” specialties— those with more humane hours, higher salaries, and lower pressures— the idealism of their med school application essays tempered or lost.’ This seems to me to be a criticism of his fellow practioners.

No doubt Kalanithi was an excellent surgeon and it is certainly more than sad that he died so young but I think, as he himself says at one stage, more can be learnt about living from literature than from factual analysis. ( )
  evening | Mar 28, 2017 |
WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR already has several thousand reader reviews at Amazon, so what else can I add? Probably not much. It's a hard book to read in the first place, but add to that the fact that I was writing condolences to the families of two old friends, and attended a funeral during the weekend I was reading it, and ... Well, while it is a hard book to read, it also offers some insight and some comfort about the end of life.

Paul Kalinithi was only 36 years old when an aggressive cancer took his life, a promising and talented neurosurgeon-neuroscientist. He somehow accepted his fate with grace and hard-won wisdom. Here are a few of his words -

"Death comes for all of us. For us, for our patients: it is our fate as living, breathing, metabolizing organisms. Most lives are lived with passivity toward death - it's something that happens to you and those around you."

As someone who witnessed death on a regular basis, Kalanithi knew that "death always wins." It's a hard lesson to learn, but I think it's better to learn as much about it as you can. The closer you keep death in front of you during your life, the easier it might be to accept when your own time comes. One of the thing that Paul and his wife, now his widow, learned (and these are Lucy Kalanithi's words) -

"... we knew that one trick to managing a terminal illness is to be deeply in love - to be vulnerable, kind, generous, grateful."

Indeed. Lucy also shared this, in her Epilogue -

"At home in bed a few weeks before he died, I asked him, 'Can you breathe okay with my head on your chest like this?' His answer was, 'It's the only way I know how to breathe.'"

This is, no question, a very sad book, being about a talented young man's bright future cut short. But it's also a very brave book, full of wisdom, yearning, and love. Because Paul Kalanithi loved his wife, his new baby, his family, his work - life. But he left it bravely, and he left us this book, a resonating record of his last journey. Highly recommended.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER ( )
  TimBazzett | Mar 12, 2017 |
I hesitate to try to write a bit about my reaction to When Breath Becomes Air. Yes, it is a tragic story. Yes, it encourages the reader to think about how to live the life they have. Yes, most people who have read it have an overwhelmingly positive reaction. I have to say that it didn't touch me the way that Abraham Verghese's writing did or even Atul Gawanda's book Being Mortal. I just couldn't get over the feeling that his purpose in writing was to immortalize his own achievements -- more achievements than most of us realize in a long and healthy life.

I tend to agree with The Guardian's reviewer who said, "... [Kalanithi] doesn’t go in for self-reflection or humility. I longed for him to dig a little deeper into what motivated his drive for perfection, even when it came at the expense of his own health and almost destroyed his marriage, but his achievements are simply presented like so many trophies lined up on the mantelpiece. Even the couples counsellor he and Lucy go to in the wake of his diagnosis, we are told, sees only excellence: “You two are coping with this better than any couple I’ve seen … I’m not sure I have any advice for you.” "


no one liked him but respected his brilliance as a surgeon; surprised no one at the reunion asked about his health; he should have pressed for more info regarding his weight loss; he had to know something was amiss with his health; weliked Lucy; if he had to choose bet. medicine or a good home life, he would have picked medicine; very good writer; incredible stamina; their counselor said, "You two are coping. . . . " we questioned what her education and training was;

The question that one couldn't answer was "Should they have had the baby?" On the whole, we felt it would be good for the child to have pix of herself and her dad since she would never remember him but no one could give a straight-out No or Yes.

On the whole, it was an interesting story about a remarkable surgeon. ( )
  NMBookClub | Mar 12, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 145 (next | show all)
“When Breath Becomes Air” is gripping from the start. But it becomes even more so as Dr. Kalanithi tries to reinvent himself in various ways with no idea what will happen.

Part of this book’s tremendous impact comes from the obvious fact that its author was such a brilliant polymath. And part comes from the way he conveys what happened to him — passionately working and striving, deferring gratification, waiting to live, learning to die — so well. None of it is maudlin. Nothing is exaggerated. As he wrote to a friend: “It’s just tragic enough and just imaginable enough.” And just important enough to be unmissable.

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Paul Kalanithiprimary authorall editionscalculated
Kalanithi, LucyEpiloguesecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Verghese, AbrahamForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I knew with certainty that I would never be a doctor.
I knew with certainty that I would never be a doctor. I stretched out in the sun, relaxing on a desert plateau just above our house. My uncle, a doctor, like so many of my relatives, had asked me earlier that day what I planned on doing for a career, now that I was heading off to college, and the question barely registered. If you had forced me to answer, I suppose I would have said a writer, but frankly, thoughts of any career at this point seemed absurd. I was leaving this small Arizona town in a few weeks, and I felt less like someone preparing to climb a career ladder than a buzzing electron about to achieve escape velocity, flinging out into a strange and sparkling universe.
Though we had free will, we were also biological organisms -- the brain was an organ, subject to all the laws of physics, too! Literature provided a rich account of human meaning; the brain, the, was the machinery that somehow enabled it. It seemed like magic.
Literature provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection.
Moral speculation was puny compared moral action.
I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 081298840X, Hardcover)

For readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, a profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir by a young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis who attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?
At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.
Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.

Advance praise for When Breath Becomes Air
“Rattling, heartbreaking, and ultimately beautiful, the too-young Dr. Kalanithi’s memoir is proof that the dying are the ones who have the most to teach us about life.”—Atul Gawande

“Thanks to When Breath Becomes Air, those of us who never met Paul Kalanithi will both mourn his death and benefit from his life. This is one of a handful of books I consider to be a universal donor—I would recommend it to anyone, everyone.”—Ann Patchett

(retrieved from Amazon Wed, 07 Oct 2015 23:31:43 -0400)

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