When Breath Became Air by Paul Kalanithi

Pages: 228
Genre: Non-Fiction
Read: February 2017
Rating: 9/10

Adjectives To Describe This Book: Introspective, Reflective, Inspirational, Courageous

Read If You Are: Looking for a piece of work that is pure soul.

If there is one piece of advice I could give you while reading this book it would be – Do not read the end in public. You will cry. No doubt. You will have to blink back the tears even though you know what’s coming.

The thing about the book is, it’s not about the ‘what’. It’s not even about the ‘why’ or the ‘how’. I can’t explain it but to say – it’s about the soul of the book, the soul of Dr. Paul Kalanithi. You feel it too, when you read the book. With each sentence and paragraph, you feel an outline of a person being built in front of you and against all odds, against the fact that you know he is no more – you still root for him, pray for him, wish things were different.

Dr Paul Kalanithi – a talented neurosurgeon, ahead of his game had everything crash around him when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He wrote this book because he loved literature, studied it and wanted to leave something behind. More than that, he spent his life, through neurosurgery and literature, trying to understand life and death and what makes human life meaningful. We still may not understand it, but this gave us more to think about.

Through the book you hear of his story from the beginning to the end. It is disjointed and ‘incomplete’ because he did write this in his final months but isn’t that just life? Incomplete.

I have read many a memoir, but I have never read anything with the sort of reflection the author had. Was it the death that he was facing that made him think this way or was he just like this as a person?

The preface, written by Abraham Varghese, is alright but the afterword by his wife Lucy Kalanithi gives you more insight and more tears.

At the end of the day if you ask me, this book isn’t about cancer. It’s about courage. But mostly, it’s about perspectives and life. As one reviewer on GoodReads said, ‘It’s a little bit about dying, but more about being alive.’ And I couldn’t agree more.

So don’t read this book to know of the life of a then dying man. Read this to understand the perspectives and thoughts of an intelligent, inspiring man and learn from his experiences.

P.S. The message he wrote to his daughter in the last paragraph absolutely devastated me. (First quote in the Favourite Quotes section)

Favourite Quotes:

“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.”

“Maybe life is just an instant, to brief to consider.”

“Putting lifestyle first is how you find a job – not a calling.”

“This is not the end, or even the beginning of the end. This is just the end of the beginning.”

“Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgement will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

“The word ‘hope’ first appeared in English about a thousand years ago, denoting some combination of confidence and desire. But what I desired – life- was not what I was confident about – death.”

“It occurred to me that my relationship with statistics changed as soon as I became one.”

“Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection.”


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