Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

Book Name: When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
My Rating: 5/5

There are not many books in this world that can deeply move you and drive you speechless. “When Breath Becomes Air” is such a book that will paralyze your thoughts and give you an inexpressible feeling when you finish it, and moreover, change your perspective about Life and Death.
I must thank Bill Gates for having me introduced with the book through his Gatesnotes blog. This is where I first came to know about it. Later, I found out in Goodreads that this book was nominated as the best Autobiography Book of 2016. Very well deserved.

The Kindle edition of the book has 208 pages; divided into four parts:
1. Prologue
2. Part I: In Perfect Health I Begin
3. Part II: Cease Not Till Death
4. Epilogue by his Wife

It is not a big book though. At first, I thought I could read it within a day, but since I started, I had to pause so many times and contemplate on the scenario the writer was talking about. So it will probably take 2-3 days for a normal person to finish it.

Here is the main theme:

The writer Paul, asked a few fundamental questions about life and hence chose a career to find out the answers.

What makes life worth living in the face of death?
What makes life meaningful?

Born and raised in Kingman, Arizona, Paul excelled in every area he had walked in. After graduating from Stanford University in 2000 with a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature, and a B.A. in Human Biology, he decided to earn an M.Phil in History and Philosophy of Science. But still, there was something missing in his life, and he yet couldn’t make sense what makes life worth living. So he applied for Medicine study in the University of Cambridge to understand life on a much deeper level.

Paul graduated cum-laude from the Yale School of Medicine and returned to Stanford for residency training in Neurological Surgery and a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience. During this time, he authored over twenty scientific publications and received the American Academy of Neurological Surgery’s highest award for research.

In his life time, Paul is undoubtedly considered as one of the most successful persons on earth, with having degrees from prestigious institutions and authoring high profile scientific publications, but deep inside, he was always suffering from an emptiness. This emptiness only strengthened more when he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. As a doctor, he has been treating patients and saving lives, but now he became the patient in the same hospital. Who once was an actor, today he is acted upon by the turn of fate.

As days go by and his health deteriorates, he began to ask questions if all of his life plans were worthless, if all of his achievements had no value after all!!

What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present?

What would happen to Lucy, his wife, after his death?
What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away?

Paul died in March, 2015 while writing this book. This is an unfinished work, but as much as Paul was able to write, he pointed out the answers he long had been seeking for.

“That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

“When Breath Becomes Air” is a powerful, unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

My Thoughts and Arguments:

I found the book to be deeply moving. This is a book that challenged my view about Mortality and given a new dimension to my old understanding of it.
When I had finished reading it today afternoon, I was so immersed in the thoughts that I could hardly speak for a while.

The writer and his wife taught us so much in this true story. Life, as we know it, will come to an end. No matter how much we plan for future, or how protected we feel to be, death is an inevitable journey.

Now a question pops up.
Had we known the exact date of our death, would our life get any better?
-I doubt it.

Here, Paul is seen desperately skimming through Statistics to learn how much time he has left with. But, suppose Paul had known that he would die in his thirties, would he choose to be a Neurosurgeon and Neuroscientist?
Maybe not.

Paul remained atheist for a good amount of time in his life but leaned towards Christianity during his last days when the usual life took a different meaning.

I believe, there are things, calculations, laws which are beyond our human capacity to fully comprehend. Finding meaning in Life, therefore, becomes a tough challenge to deal with too.

Despite having so many achievements, Paul still felt the need to go back to Surgery, because he did not become a Doctor to earn money or mere prestige, but it was his inner calling that brought him back to the stage of saving lives even in his sick health.

For me, this speaks of the core teaching of the book. Death is inescapable, but you do not discount the blessings you fill in a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to him before, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied.

Perhaps, this is why Mahatma Gandhi said: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

[It’s a very good book honestly. You don’t get to read this type of books very often. So Grab a copy today, and start reading]


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