Nonfiction book When Breath Becomes Air asks what makes life worth living?

When Breath Becomes Air is a book about a reality that you may want to escape. However, sometimes confronting reality is necessary.

When Breath Becomes Air
Published by Random House Publishing Group
256 pages

When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir by Paul Kalanithi, takes a closer look into life, death, and what it means to fully live since, “even if you’re dying, until you actually die, you are still living.” Kalanithi carefully considers questions such as, “how should we approach death?” and “What makes life worth living in the face of death?” The author wrote the book after receiving a terminal diagnosis. He died from lung cancer at the age 37.

Living busy lives, nobody has time to think about their death and what it might mean to face it. However, Kalanithi’s words are so powerful and motivational that it makes us think about how we should confront death and what to do with the last part of our lives.

Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon at Stanford University. One day, he started to lose weight and suspected that he had cancer. A few days later, a CT scan confirmed it. However, with medical treatment, he was able to continue to work as a neurosurgeon. When he became too sick to work, he began to write. Kalanithi was in his 30’s; however, this was the period of time where he made the most progress in life: as a writer, a doctor, and a mentor.

Another significant character in this book is his wife, Lucy. They met in medical school and fell in love. They moved together to California – Paul becoming a neurosurgeon and Lucy working in internal medicine. Anyone who has ever experienced a loss knows it is very easy to think negatively. However, Lucy stayed positive until her partner passed away. Her love helped Kalanithi live fully and made him realize that we are living until we are dead.

“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. 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.”

This is my favorite quote for a number of reasons. For one, it conveys a powerful lesson. Kalanithi was reminding us that everybody dies; however, until we really die, we should live fully because we really never know when we are going to die until it actually happens.

Most people, including myself, reading this book will not knowingly be close to death. So, it is nearly impossible to relate to Paul Kalanithi. However, most, if not all people have experienced a loss. I was able to relate to Lucy starting from the moment she knew her husband had cancer. Last year, my grandmother passed away. My family and I were depressed ever since we knew she only had a few days to live. On the other hand, Lucy showed very little negativity during Kalanithi’s fight with cancer and showed great courage by giving birth even when Kalanithi was going to die soon.

One challenging aspect of this book is the language. There are a lot of challenging vocabulary and medical terms, including a lot of instances where Kalanithi explained complex medical procedures. To understand the difficult vocabulary, I had to stop frequently to look up words before continuing. This broke the book’s flow. The medical terminology made me zone out at times when reading the book.

When Breath Becomes Air is different from most popular books. This is a book where life and death which is told from a dying man’s own perspective. There are not a lot of books written by writers that knew they were dying. This was a new experience to read and I hope to see more of this kind of book in the future.

I recommend this awe-inspiring book to everybody with at least a high-school reading level. By the time you finish the epilogue written by Lucy, Kalanithi’s wife, you will be in tears. Kalanithi was such a giving man and Lucy was a supportive woman. When Breath Become Air is a book of reality that you may want to escape. However, sometimes realizing reality is necessary.

I will leave you with this quote that sums up Paul Kalanithi’s heartbreaking but full life:

“Relying on his own strength and the support of his family and community, Paul faced each stage of his illness with grace—not with bravado or a misguided faith that he would “overcome” or “beat” cancer but with an authenticity that allowed him to grieve the loss of the future he had planned and forge a new one. He cried on the day he was diagnosed. He cried while looking at a drawing we kept on the bathroom mirror that said, “I want to spend all the rest of my days here with you.” He cried on his last day in the operating room. He let himself be open and vulnerable, let himself be comforted. Even while terminally ill, Paul was fully alive; despite physical collapse, he remained vigorous, open, full of hope not for an unlikely cure but for days that were full of purpose and meaning.”

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