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When Breath Becomes Air

by Paul Kalanithi

Other authors: Lucy Kalanithi (Epilogue)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
4,5152812,135 (4.23)295
"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"-- "At the age of 36, on the verge of a completing a decade's worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi's health began to falter. He started losing weight and was wracked by waves of excruciating back pain. A CT scan confirmed what Paul, deep down, had suspected: he had stage four lung cancer, widely disseminated. One day, he was a doctor making a living treating the dying, and the next, he was a patient struggling to live. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated. With incredible literary quality, philosophical acuity, and medical authority, When Breath Becomes Air approaches the questions raised by facing mortality from the dual perspective of the neurosurgeon who spent a decade meeting patients in the twilight between life and death, and the terminally ill patient who suddenly found himself living in that liminality. At the base of Paul's inquiry are essential questions, such as: What makes life worth living in the face of death? What happens when the future, instead of being a ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present? When faced with a terminal diagnosis, what does it mean to have a child, to nuture a new life as another one fades away? As Paul wrote, "Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn't know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn't know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn't really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live." Paul Kalanithi passed away in March 2015, while working on this book"-- On the verge of completing a decade's worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. Kalanithi chronicles his transformation from a naïve medical student 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.… (more)
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» See also 295 mentions

English (280)  Danish (2)  French (2)  Spanish (1)  All languages (285)
Showing 1-5 of 280 (next | show all)
Effortless to read, yet very little to take away. The Goodreads 3-star reviews summarise my feelings well. I hope the author's daughter can deal with her legacy. There's not much love here, of anything. Just the grinding of the gears of a privileged existence. A privileged contemporary existence with a sad end. Carpe diem. ( )
  ortgard | Sep 22, 2022 |
Paul Kalanithi, the author of this touching memoir, died of stage IV lung cancer in March 2015, ten months before the publication of the novel which would not only raise attention to his fate, but also to the general effects of the terrible disease that is cancer (which should never cease to deserve attention; it is a subject too important). When I first opened the pages of this book, what I expected was a clinical description of his disease's course, but Kalanithi surprised me and probably a lot of other people as well.

This is a work of reflection. Paul Kalanithi lived for only 37 years, but in the end of his life he was thankful for the experiences he had and the life he was allowed to live, for the woman he married and the career he focused many parts of his life on. His reflections on the illness are touching and moving, but his book is also about his thoughts on doctoring, included many interesting aspects about his time-consuming steps to become a respected doctor and to establish his career as a neurosurgeon. Survived by his wife (who wrote the beautiful afterword to this book) and a daughter, Kalanithi talks about the struggle of first being a doctor treating patients and then, from one day to the next, turning into a patient being treated by doctors. After all, facing mortality is a difficult thing to do for everyone who had to deal with death at a certain point of their lives. And so was it for Kalanithi.

I bear a lot of respect for Kalanithi and was incredibly touched by his fate. His prose was not always as natural and flowing as you might wish in a book, but he delivered the best he could, and I am the last person to criticize him for that - especially considering the circumstances under which he wrote these pages. Even more, the book was not as depressing as you might expect in a memoir about cancer.

“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”
Paul Kalanithi's words inspired me, his story touched me, and I am grateful for the publication of his book, as what happened to him is so important for so many people.

~~~
If you are interested in more insight on Kalanithi, you may be interested in this short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5u753wQeyM ( )
  Councillor3004 | Sep 1, 2022 |
This was a quick and easy read that I would recommend for several reasons. It is a story that asks people to stop and think about the direction their lives are going. It also looks at what Paul did when his life no longer followed his intended path. I was impressed with how he handled this. For the first time in a long time I referred to the dictionary while reading through this book and learned several new and interesting words. It's always fun to learn something new. The story is well told and easy to follow. I enjoyed this book and can see myself rereading it again in the future. ( )
  ArcherKel | Aug 17, 2022 |
Inspiring. ( )
  btbell_lt | Aug 1, 2022 |
I tend to always give memoirs a high rating because the author is totally putting him or her story out there for people to decimate however even if I didn't I still would have given this book 5 stars.
With the exception of the Foreword by Abraham Verghese and the Epilogue, written by Dr. Kalanithi's wife, Lucy, everything is taken from Paul Kalanithi's personal journal.
When we are first introduced to Dr. Kalanithi, he has just learned of his medical diagnosis and for that reason this book could have been titled "When Doctor Becomes Patient. However, this memoir is much more than that as he regresses to stories from his childhood, how everyone in his family seemed to be a doctor but he never imagined he would follow in their footsteps. Yet, a doctor he did become, a neurologist at that.
What struck me is the way the author relates stories of how doctor's are affected by their patients medical triumphs and, sadly, their struggles which are sometimes difficult to bear. It is this humanity that endears Dr Kalanithi to the reader especially when he and his wife attempt to manage their lives after his diagnosis.
A very fast and interesting read. ( )
  Carmenere | Jul 6, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 280 (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 (14 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Paul Kalanithiprimary authorall editionscalculated
Kalanithi, LucyEpiloguesecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Campbell, CassandraNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Malhotra, SunilNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Verghese, AbrahamForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
You that seek what life is in death,
Now find it air that once was breath.
New names unknown, old names gone:
Till time end bodies, but souls none.
  Reader! then make time, while you be,
  But steps to your eternity.

— Baron Brooke Fulke Greville, “Caelica 83”
Dedication
For Cady
First words
I knew with certainty that I would never be a doctor.
 —  Part One
I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumours, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated.
 —  Prologue
Quotations
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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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"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"-- "At the age of 36, on the verge of a completing a decade's worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi's health began to falter. He started losing weight and was wracked by waves of excruciating back pain. A CT scan confirmed what Paul, deep down, had suspected: he had stage four lung cancer, widely disseminated. One day, he was a doctor making a living treating the dying, and the next, he was a patient struggling to live. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated. With incredible literary quality, philosophical acuity, and medical authority, When Breath Becomes Air approaches the questions raised by facing mortality from the dual perspective of the neurosurgeon who spent a decade meeting patients in the twilight between life and death, and the terminally ill patient who suddenly found himself living in that liminality. At the base of Paul's inquiry are essential questions, such as: What makes life worth living in the face of death? What happens when the future, instead of being a ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present? When faced with a terminal diagnosis, what does it mean to have a child, to nuture a new life as another one fades away? As Paul wrote, "Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn't know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn't know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn't really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live." Paul Kalanithi passed away in March 2015, while working on this book"-- On the verge of completing a decade's worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. Kalanithi chronicles his transformation from a naïve medical student 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.

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