Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

Expect to see a lot of these coming up. I’ve finally attached myself to the local library in my new area (only took me eight months haha whoops) so I now have access to books. Including many on hold that I’m picking up, right after I write this post (the book’s due back today).

When Breath Becomes Air is a beautiful bittersweet book. It is a biography of Paul Kalanithi. On the cusp of graduating to being a neurosurgeon, he was diagnosed with cancer. It had already metastasized. Yet he wasn’t done living yet – he had a wife and they’d been making future plans. So he has to decide how to live, in the amount of time he has left.

It shows how he does this by going back to the beginning, from his childhood, through early university and his attempts at discerning what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go – ultimately, who he wanted to be.

The book is very interesting on one level because Dr Kalanithi shared an interest of mine: neurology and how the happenings within the nervous system (especially the brain) affect people. After all, he was a neurosurgeon. I recognise the terminology and the sense of stories.

The prose in the book is brilliant. Dr Kalanithi’s way of describing situations makes them crystal clear and also gives them the right sort of grace and gravity. For example:

“When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.” (p.87)

“I had met her in a space where she was a person, instead of a problem to be solved.” (p.90)

“Being with patients in these moments certainly had its emotional cost, but it also had its rewards.” (p.97, emphasis in-text)

“If the weight of mortality does not grow lighter, does it at least get more familiar?” (p.138)

“Doctors, it turns out, need hope, too.” (p.194)

He talks about humanity and how it’s revealed in different forms. Death and life and illness. The book is, at its heart, an examination of relationship. The details of people, at the crossroads of what was and what will be. It is also about identity – losing what used to be yourself and having to find and create a new sense of it.

My favourite prose in the book is the last paragraph Dr Kalanithi wrote. It is a marvellous book, despite and because of its subject matter. I’m glad I read it.

 

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