What makes life Meaningful? – When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

Title: When Breath Becomes Air

Author: Paul Kalanithi

Genre: Memoir, Contemporary, Non-Fiction


This is a memoir by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who is diagnosed with incurable lung cancer at thrity-six, just a few months shy of completing his residency as a neurosurgeon at Stanford. This book is Kalanithi’s walk from a healthy, hard-working and well respected neurosurgeon to a terminally ill patient at the very hospital that he practiced.

This isn’t the first book I have read about life and death, Tuesdays with Morrie and Fault in Our Stars are atleast two that I can recall, however all three are distinct. This memoir for one is incomplete, which validates the struggle of Dr. Kalanithi who typed away at his laptop until his faculties no longer cooperated. Such is the power of words which outlive a person and such is the power of a book that enables us to delve into the mind of a person who is dealing with life and death everyday, as a doctor and as a patient.

The book opens with a foreword by the author’s friend who talks about Kalanithi’s funeral- which is a good place to start because it made one realize the impact Kalanithi had made during his lifetime (the book was published posthumously). Some aspects of the book delve into the immense miracle that the human brain is and the decisions about life that took place during a neurosurgeon’s  diagnosis and operations. There is a bit of medical jargon in between but nothing that someone like me who has very basic knowledge of biology cannot understand. This my favorite paragraph from the book.

When Paul emailed his best friend in May 2013 to inform him that he had terminal cancer he wrote,”The good news is I’ve already outlived two Brontes, Keats and Stephen Krane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.”

The last few chapters that Kalanithi wrote were about his terminal illness, struggles as a patient and some tough calls that he had to make. These were somewhat sad but in words of his wife ” what happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy.” Please do not miss the epilogue by his wife, it adds a sense of completion to the book.

“Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?” she asked. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”

“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”

Paul Kalanithi was a brave, brilliant man who impacted lives during his lifetime and is sure to impact many more with his book. I tried not to summarize the book for you and avoid any spoilers, so please pick it up as your next read. Kalanithi made me realize that some experiences are worth the pain, like they say it is better to have loved and lost than to not have loved at all.

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