Book Review | When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

This is a book review that should have been written a long time ago.

I had my eye on this book for a while, but I didn’t get to read it until a friend kindly lent it to me. I kept my nose in it for a grand total of three days (that blazing-hot Bank Holiday weekend at the end of August last year) but I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Honestly. These words stick with you.

As usual, I’ll start with a little background information. This is a true story: a story about Paul Kalanithi, who is diagnosed with terminal cancer just as he starts the life he has been training for over ten years. We see Paul transform from medical student, to neurosurgeon, to patient at the age of just 36.

When breath becomes air, by Paul Kalanithi

It’s no secret that this book was published posthumously, before it could be finished. This is not a story with a happy ending. What makes it all the more poignant is the fact that, not only does it follow Paul’s medical journey and illness, but it also follows his quest to discover what the truly makes life worth living.

Paul was so in touch with what it means to live. It was the catalyst for his career choice, and for his writing. It’s painful, but the context of this book almost makes it more beautiful, in a heart-breakingly, soul-achingly sad kind of way.

This book is full of stunning sentences and intricate details. Not only was Paul a brilliant medic, but he was incredibly skilled and gifted as a writer too, which is no mean feat and a rare quality. I found it a wonderfully unusual mixture of poetic and medical; to have life and death explored by someone with such an intimate knowledge of the human brain and body, with such a wonderful way with words, is very unusual and very special.

When Breath Becomes Air is full to the brim with feelings and thoughts. It made me think, tear up, cry, laugh, and wish for more.

It is raw, and real, and incredibly human.

There is so much wisdom in Paul’s words that I feel I should, and could, read it over and over again, to get some perspective and remind myself why life is rich and precious and beautiful and unexpected and short.

This is positively one of the best books I have read in a very long time. I would urge anyone and everyone to read it; it’s not always easy, and certainly not cheerful, but it’s stunning and thought-provoking and will probably stay with you forever.


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