Length: 228 pages
Audiobook Length: 5 hours and 35 minutes
First Published: 2016
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At only 36 years old, Dr. Kalanithi was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Suddenly, he found himself thrust from the role of a neurosurgeon to that of a dying patient. Coming face-to-face with his mortality, Kalanithi decided to write his memoir and wrestle with the question: “What makes life worth living in the face of dying?” Easily one of the best memoirs of recent years, When Breath Becomes Air is a look at the heartbreaking decisions Kalanithi faced as he contemplated a life without a future.
At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.
Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.
Quotes from When Breath Becomes Air
You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.
Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.
The main message of Jesus, I believed, is that mercy trumps justice every time.
Years ago, it had occurred to me that Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing: the defining characteristic of the organism is striving.
Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.
About Paul Kalanithi
Paul Kalanithi was an Indian-American neurosurgeon. After being diagnosed with lung cancer, he wrote the memoir When Breath Becomes Air. Kalinithi died in 2015 at the age of 37.