When Breath Becomes Air

Why do you write like you’re running out of time?

A lyric from Hamilton, yes, but also appropriate here. Age 36 and a resident neurosurgeon, the last thing Paul Kalanithi expected was to be hit with a terminal cancer diagnosis. So when he suddenly found himself with excruciating back pain and overwhelming shortness of breath, at first he did not want to believe what his diagnostic skills were telling him. Soon, though, the denial caught up to him as quickly as the disease. When Breath Becomes Air is Paul’s philosophical rendering of his illness.

I read this very quickly, in only a few hours. The story is beautiful, if of course sad. These types of things always are. Kalanithi was an English major before going pre-med, and is therefore extremely philosophical and doesn’t just study the brain from a scientific point of view. His original reason for becoming a doctor was because he was fascinated by how we form relationships. He approaches the brain the same way I do, so I reading those sections, and it made me all the more saddened to know such a great mind is lost.

Of course, because this is a doctor writing about his own experience with cancer, the book does get a little clinical. There are plenty of big words for big diseases and medicines that I don’t know and didn’t bother looking up. Mostly though, this is written for the layman who is preparing for grief or death, and it’s done beautifully.


NetGalley provided this ARC for an unbiased review. Released January 12.


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