When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi)

In a word: Tragic

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Read in one afternoon. Cried lots of tears.


As Kalanithi’s wife puts it, “What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy.” This is the autobiography of an almost-neurosurgeon diagnosed with terminal cancer, the last record of a promising life cut short. Although Paul’s story is certainly tragic, it is also an exploration of life, meaning, value, and humanity. In his college days, Paul sought to find out what gives life meaning. This search took him deep into literature and into biology. This book is graphic–he was studying to be a neurosurgeon, so he was face-to-face with all sorts of suffering and tragedy–but it is also beautifully written and thoughtful. He saved lives and he watched lives drastically change, but he had such conviction, such hope. Paul believed that this line of work was his calling; he wanted to be there to guide and comfort people through the hardest days of their lives. When his own life-changing diagnosis came, he wrestled with his convictions in a new way. He lived bravely and purposefully until the end.

I still have a hard time talking about how this book made me feel. When I closed the cover, I had to sit and think for a while. It is beautiful and thought-provoking, but also so hard to read. I don’t know if it is universally appealing, but it will certainly leave a mark on anyone who reads it. Paul’s story was a reminder that cancer doesn’t discriminate. I hope that if I was ever in a similar situation that I would respond with the grace and strength that he did.

Note: If you don’t cry on the last page and in the epilogue, are you even human?


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