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What I'm reading: "When breath becomes air" by Paul Kalanithi

Photo by Alex Loup (via Unsplash)

I first chanced upon When Breath Becomes Air sometime in December last year in a bookstore - my boyfriend had read it a while back and recommended it to me. Some odd weeks and a few teary spells later, I'm writing this fresh off finishing the book and I will say that I'm so humbled and so moved by it. So yes, if there’s something you should read this year, make this one of them.

When Breath Becomes Air is the unfinished memoir by the late Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who, only in his mid-thirties, discovers that he has lung cancer - an almost cruelly-timed diagnosis for a man right at the cusp of major life milestones: finishing residency, receiving a few offers from prestigious neuroscience labs, and becoming a new father. For a man who devoted his life to studying the mind, life, and our mortality, the heartbreaking irony in the book is palpable. 

I found it impossible to dive into the book without the slightly chilling awareness that this is essentially the journal written by a man in his last few days. From the get-go, Paul is unflinching in sharing his encounters with death, both as a practicing surgeon and later as a cancer patient. His acute awareness of mortality seeps into every page of the book, from matter-of-fact and vivid vignettes of what happens on a surgical table to him retrospecting about what the patients in his care must've endured after a foreboding prognosis. Yet, despite "death being so familiar", "face-to-face... nothing about it seemed recognizable."  

"I could see the vastness of the chasm between the life she'd had last week and the one she was about to enter. (The patient) and her husband didn't seem ready to hear 'brain cancer' - is anyone?"


I couldn’t get past the second half of the book - particularly his wife Lucy's epilogue, Paul's message to his then eight-month-old baby girl - without choking back tears. Every page you leaf through is a page closer to the inevitable ending you know is coming. You can't help but fall in love with Paul's spirit; after all, the book was, as you can imagine, an incredibly intimate insight into what it feels like to know that you're dying. A part of me mourned Paul too.


As Paul works through the "featureless wasteland" that was his life immediately after receiving his cancer diagnosis, you can't help but think about your own mortality as well. Though about death, nothing about it is woe-is-me. Its pages radiate with love, light, humility and a profound understanding of the transience of life, the inevitability of death and our very fragile mortality. 

I left this book without the nauseating "Bam! This is now the meaning to life!" that so many self-help books that sit next to Paul's memoir on bestseller racks purport to do. Rather, you surface from the depths of its beautifully sad pages with a more layered understanding of life. 

We live in such a death-avoidant culture that we are so ill-equipped with the right vocabulary or language to talk about mortality and death. In a way, it is Paul's memoir written in his final days, not his various medical endeavours/thesis as a neurosurgeon, that ultimately holds a mirror to what it means to live, die, and consequently, what it means to be... human?

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