Title: When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
Page count: 225 pages
Summary: What makes life worth living in the face of death? Dr Paul Kalanithi is 36, and on the verge of completing a decade of strenuous training as a neurosurgeon. One of the most up-and-coming in his field, how does he respond when a diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer turns the tables and takes him from doctor to patient?
I will never not recommend When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.
A bold statement, I know, but despite only reading it this year, it’s become one of the shortlisted books I immediately recommend to people looking for a new read. At first, it can be a bit of a hard sell – who voluntarily picks up a book that they’re told was written by a dying man, describes the ins and outs of cancer treatment, and made the person so heartily recommending it cry?
Well, hopefully you, and here’s why.
Why read a book that will make me cry?
Yes, it’s one of the few books I cried at. In fact, before it, I can’t even remember the last book I cried at. But bear with me. When Breath Becomes Air is sad in some ways of course – how could it not be with the subject matter in mind? But I didn’t cry purely because of that. No, I cried because Paul takes the reader on an intrepid journey through the spectrum of human emotion, the impacts we have on the world and the ripple effect of our actions.
In the short time we have with him between the pages, he confides in you, shares his hopes, ambitions, and fears. He shares secrets that you feel he’s told nobody else, and when you reach the end and close the book, you get that feeling you get when you shut the door behind a friend visiting from far away and you’re not sure when you’ll see them again. It feels like that, multiplied by 10, as you know you won’t hear from Paul again.
The book is probably the most poignant and heartbreaking book I’ve ever read. It’s a truly thought-provoking insight into what a terminally ill patient goes through, and how important it is to live life even with death sitting on your shoulder.
Okay, but what’s the book about?
When Breath Becomes Air is a fresh, original narrative on what makes life worth living, from the eyes of a man seeing it simultaneously through the technicolour glasses of joy, love, innocence, hope and appreciation, but also through the ever-dimming greyness of sunglasses on a dull afternoon as he realises every step he takes, every moment he enjoys, could be the last.
Paul takes us on a journey from life to death, making you think what you value, and what makes life worth living for you. Is it love? Ambition? Discovery? Exploration? Creativity?
Is life worth living if those things are given to you wrapped in bubblewrap so you can only touch them from a distance, tenderly, carefully and under observation, or taken away from you entirely?
How does it feel to bring new life into the world as your own fades? How does it feel to try to get everything you want to say down on paper, with the ever ticking hands of time moving the deadline ever closer?
Why the emotional rollercoaster is worth it
I know this review has probably got you on edge, wondering if you should give it a try when you know it’s so emotionally charged. What I would say to you is yes, keep a box of Kleenex handy, but don’t skip the book for fear of being too sad like I almost did.
Whilst it’s a sad and frustrating tale in some aspects, I found myself unexpectedly inspired and uplifted whilst reading. It’s one of the most poignant books I’ve ever had the fortune to read, and to this day, I hear Paul in my head urging me to go on if I’m having a bad day or wondering what to do next.
Paul’s story is a truly breathtaking insight into life and death, on both scientific and spiritual levels. It’s an an emotional rollercoaster for sure, but gives you the joy of getting to know Paul, a brave, dedicated and noble man, trying to live as death unexpectedly steps into his life. When Breath Becomes Air will introduce you to him, and whilst it’s a too-short, bittersweet introduction, you’ll be glad you crossed paths. Whilst Paul may be gone, his presence will live on and continue to inspire you every day.