“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi


The buzz surrounding When Breath Becomes Air was heard well in advance of the actual publication of the book. The background of the book was unmistakably tragic – it was authored by a young doctor who discovered that he has terminal lung cancer, and he actually dies before the publication of the book, which was then completed by his wife. The book was thus published posthumously. Written by someone who has only a few months to live – and knows that – the book was undoubtedly unique. A memoir of sorts, it was written by Kalanithi after his diagnosis in an attempt to discover what makes life worth living, and it became one of the key projects that he embarked upon precisely to make the rest of his brief life more purposeful.

Kalanithi was not only a brilliant doctor who scaled great heights in his career at a young age – he studied at Stanford and Yale and returned to Stanford to work as a neurosurgeon – but he also had an abiding interest in literature and history, which makes When Breath Becomes Air an extremely well written book, even without accounting for its theme and subject matter. It was fascinating to learn about Kalanithi’s background and upbringing, about his dual interests in both biology and literature, and how the idea of finding what it is within us that enables us to find meaning ultimately led him to neuroscience. The various neurological cases that he encountered while working at Stanford also made for interesting reading, and of course, his thoughts following his own diagnosis of terminal lung cancer – how to make the best of the little time he has left to live? – was the crux of the book. How often do we have the privilege of learning about anyone’s final thoughts before they die, let alone of someone so remarkable?

However, given that my expectations from the book were sky-high – from all the advance buzz and accolades – even before I started reading it, it seems that it was almost doomed from the start not to be able to live up to them. While this is definitely a must-read book, even a keeper – I bought it rather than just borrowing it from the library or a friend – I did not find it to be as insightful and profound as I had anticipated. I was hoping for some words of wisdom on how to live my life better, in a more meaningful way, but I didn’t find it in this book. Ultimately, for me, it was a very touching narrative about one person’s dilemmas and choices in the face of a rapidly approaching death, but I did not find it life-changing in any way, as I had been led to expect.

While it seems almost blasphemous to be critical of a book like this in any way – almost as if you are walking over the body of a dead person – I do wish that the folks in charge of marketing this book, as well as the media, had not hyped it up so much that it inevitably fell short of what it promised.

When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: January 2016

Reviewer: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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