Thursday, May 19, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi


When Breath Becomes Air
by Paul Kalanithi
narrated by Sunil Malhotra, Cassandra Campbell
Random House Audio, 2016
5 hours and 35 minutes
source: purchased

Publisher's Summary:
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.

My thoughts:

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.

Favorite quotes:

“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!

My rating:



38 comments:

  1. That sounds intense as well as memorable read. You are in the medical community but I didn't know if you are familiar with Florida doctors/ medical examiners, as you spend some time living here. If so, a pillar of the medical examiners community here, Dr Bruce Hyma, died last month after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was vibrant, brilliant and for such a horrific disease to hit him was unimaginable.

    Your review made me think of him, "I can't go on. I will go on". I shall look for this book at our library.

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    1. Tina - I am not familiar with Dr. Hyma, but will certainly read about his legacy. Hope you get a chance to read this one.

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  2. I just got an email that my hold for the e-audiobook of this has come in. I can't wait to read it.

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    1. Rachel - It really is wonderful... so much to ponder. Both narrators are excellent, too.

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  3. I've got to get my hands on this one.

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    1. Kathy - It's definitely a must read!

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  4. I think I was 227th in line for this at the library, so I'm planning to read it next week so I don't lose my chance. (I also had an interesting conversation about it with med-student niece, so that and your review are extra motivation...)

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    1. Audrey - I'm sure your niece would have an interesting perspective on this book. Buy an extra box of tissues before you get started!

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  5. I bought this book and have been putting it off for some reason - maybe because I know I'm going to cry a lot while reading it. However, sounds like I need to suck it up and give it a go. I can't wait to read it now. Thanks!

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    1. Nadia - I suppose there never is a good time to read a book like this, but it's definitely worth it! Probably best to read in the privacy of your own home though.

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  6. I know I should read this but I may wait another half year ...

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    1. Beth F - This is a tough one. I can understand wanting to put it off.

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  7. I've heard of this one but have chickened out on reading because surely it can't be as good as everyone says! Sounds like it really really is. This definitely sounds like a book that needs to be read in my own home as I imagine it falls into ugly cry territory but knowing that it IS as good as everyone says makes it hard to resist!

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    1. Katherine - Yes, definitely falls into the 'ugly cry territory'. Good idea to read it at home!

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  8. I'm definitely planning to read this one during Nonfiction Nov this year. I've heard such good things!

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    1. Sarah - I'm already planning for Nonfiction November, too. This is a great book!

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  9. This sounds like a really worthwhile read.

    It seems that many similar works have been written by family of the terminally ill. A book from the perspective of the person experiencing this seems to be important.


    Great commentary as always JoAnn.

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    1. Brian Joseph - It really is an excellent book. I was trying to think of another book written by a terminally ill patient(not necessarily one who is also a doctor) and couldn't come up with one.

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  10. I just loved the audio, and thought it was probably way more effective than just reading the book; Sunil Mahotra was amazing. But I also found that after listening, I wanted a physical copy of the book so I could go back to some of the lovely passages.

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    1. Jill - I'm so glad I listened to this one, but equally as glad I had the print copy to look up the quotes. Such a worthwhile read!!

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  11. I'll add this to my list, but not sure I'm ready to read something like this yet.

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    1. Vicki - I don't think this book would be the best choice for you right now. It came up in conversation at book club this morning and one member who has been widowed for 10 years says she still could not read this one.

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    2. Thanks for letting me know JoAnn! I think I'll wait on this book.

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    3. Vicki - You're welcome. Good decision, I think.

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  12. If only the library hold list for this book weren't so long! It does sound good. And I love the quotes you chose.

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    1. Lark- I know! My library has multiple copies and it doesn't take very long to read, so it moved along quicker than expected.

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  13. I have been hesitant to read this one but I think I can do the audio! That would be easier (I hope). Glad to read that you love this one.

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    1. Athira - Not sure if the audio is any easier... I was flat out sobbing.

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  14. Oh, I'm so happy you loved it!!! This is my #1 book of 2016, and I don't foresee another book taking that slot.

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    1. Kathy - This was one amazing book. Can't imagine it not being on my "Best of" list in December!

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  15. Thanks for this moving post, JoAnn. I've heard a lot of praises for this book. Will definitely read or listen to it when life is smoother a bit. Right now in caring for my husband recovering from a major surgery. I know, there's definitely insights that's helpful for me. I too have read a moving book lately, surprisingly a children's book. Just posted. Have you read it? Wonder by R. J. Palacio.

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    1. Arti - I read your review on goodreads and it sounds wonderful! Have not read it, but will certainly add Wonder to my list.

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  16. You highlighted most of my most memorable quotes from this book as well.

    I'm glad you found this book as rewarding as I did.

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    1. Brona - This was such a moving book. I don't remember the last time I cried like that while reading!

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  17. You liked this one better than I did. I found myself comparing it (or my reaction to the book) to Being Mortal, which I thought was fabulous. I enjoyed the first half of When Breath Becomes Air much better than the second half. Writing my review this week, so I'll share more later.

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    1. Les - I loved Being Mortal and gave that 5 stars, too, but found it hard to compare the two books. I agree that the first half of this one was better though. Will look forward to your review.

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  18. There's some absurd amount of holds of this book at my library. Like 300 or something. I wish I could get the audio of it -- if they had it. Still I vow to get to it before the end of the Year! thanks

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    1. Susan - Three hundred holds??!! I hope they have many, many copies in circulation. This is such popular book right now... with good reason.

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