Book Review: ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air is the heart-wrenching but unforgettable autobiography of Dr Paul Kalanithi, a young neurosurgeon who was forced to face death as both a patient and a doctor when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The book explores questions about life, legacy and medicine in a deeply personal way which brings a very unique perspective.

Although Kalanithi chose a life in medicine, he once studied literature and had a passion and a talent for writing. The result is a beautifully written book that is engaging but easy to read.  He also manages to write with enough intelligence and strength that his story invokes empathy but not pity. I personally found the book very moving but if you don’t like books that induce rivers of tears this may not be for you!

The following is a quote from the book which I found particularly powerful. Kalanithi is discussing the changing medical profession when he reflects that:

“What had not changed, though, was the heroic spirit of responsibility amid blood and failure. This struck me as the true image of a doctor.”

A lot of depictions of doctors in films, T.V. and books portray a glamorous heroism, whereas Kalanithi’s description is much rawer and more honest.

Sadly, Dr Paul Kalanithi died before he could publish his book. It was completed by his wife with a very courageous epilogue. Although the book feels complete without it, the epilogue gives some closure, especially if you are as emotionally invested as I was.

Overall, When Breath Becomes Air tells a tragic story in a surprisingly uplifting way. Kalanithi’s reflections on his life and death make the reader think about what is most important in medicine and in life.

Check out more info about the book here!