When Breath Becomes Air
by Paul Kalanithi
narrated by Sunil Malhotra, Cassandra Campbell
Random House Audio, 2016
5 hours and 35 minutes
At the age of 36, 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.
Right up front... this book really is as good as everyone says.
I was already on the library hold list (and had been for some time) when Jill posted her review of the audio version of When Breath Becomes Air. It convinced me to use an audible credit and start listening right away. As luck would have it, my ebook hold came in the next day. At that point, I became totally consumed by the read/listen combination and finished the book at 2AM.
Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer just months before finishing a grueling neurosurgical residency. During the time he had left, he chose to write a book tackling the question of what makes life meaningful. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to finish the book, but his wife Lucy wrote an epilogue and saw the book through to publication.
This book is beautifully written, thought-provoking, and devastatingly sad. Keep a big box of tissues handy and be sure to choose your reading time/place wisely.
Narrators Sunil Mahotra and Cassandra Campbell are both among my favorites and deliver excellent performances here. But I loved the print version, too. There are so many quotes to savor.
“Grand illnesses are supposed to be life-clarifying. Instead, I knew I was going to die—but I’d known that before. My state of knowledge was the same, but my ability to make lunch plans had been shot to hell. The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?”
"It occurred to me that my relationship with statistics changed as soon as I became one."
“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”
"Literature not only illuminated another's experience, it provided, I believe, the richest material for moral reflection."
"What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain. Meaning, while a slippery concept, seemed inextricable from human relationships and moral values."
“There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past. That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life where 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, 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.”
“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
Bottom line: Read or listen, just don't miss this book!