I have been meaning to read this book for a while now, but put it off for one reason or another. One of the reasons I put it off was that I knew it would be an emotional read, and I wanted to be ready for that. Sometimes I can handle emotional books, but sometimes I just need something light. Recently, I finally felt prepared to read this book.
When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir written by Paul Kalanithi, who passed away from lung cancer in March of 2015. The book chronicles his experiences as he is diagnosed with lung cancer just as he is nearing the end of his residency as a neurosurgeon. It is split into two sections, one pre-diagnosis and one post-diagnosis. In the first section, he shares what led him to the field of medicine (he originally graduated with a BA and MA in English literature), and experiences from med school and his first few years of residency. Throughout the book, he grapples with the idea of death, which as a doctor and later patient, he becomes intimately connected to. He writes, “the act of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live” (132).
I was so impressed with Kalanithi’s ability to marry his medical descriptions (some of which I had to skim over to reduce my squeamishness) with beautiful, poetic phrasing. It’s a true example of how someone can use all of their brain (if you believe in the left-brain/right-brain philosophy), and seeking truth not just in one field, but finding your voice and calling in multiple spaces.
Though I could have easily read this book in a day (it’s a smaller size, and only 225 pages), I often felt emotionally exhausted and had to put it down to focus on something else. (Perhaps if it had been broken into chapters I would have gotten through it faster). But despite the heartbreaking circumstances under which he wrote, his message is one of hope, as is his wife Lucy’s epilogue.
You have fair warning that you shouldn’t read the last 30 pages (or first 10) without a box of tissues close by, or in view of anyone you don’t want to see you ugly cry (if you get emotional reading books). But, I also think you’ll find it uplifting, and make you think about your own mortality in a healthy way, rather than a sad, foreboding one.
Have you read this book? What did you think?
What are you reading right now?