2017 Reading List: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

I read somewhere, maybe on someone’s blog, that When Breath Becomes Air is a must-read in your lifetime. A life-changing memoir. Whoever told me I had to read it was right.

I read Paul Kalanithi’s memoir in one day. It’s short and I had a lot of time. But it is an incomplete account of an amazingly full and meaningful life that was cut far too short by a rapidly progressing lung cancer. The fact that it is unfinished makes it all the more perfect. 

Paul is writing this book in the final months of his life, as he is dying of cancer. It is an account of his life, where he came from, where he went to school, and mostly, his journey to becoming an award-winning neurosurgeon/neuroscientist. The second half of the book focuses on his battle with cancer, his struggle with finding meaning in life and death, and his decisions about how to spend his remaining time.

Paul talks a lot about his plans for his life, short-term and long-term, whatever his long-term might be. He also discusses his quest for finding meaning.

Even just by reading this short book, I can tell that Paul was extremely smart. Far more intelligent than I’ll ever be. He read a lot, studied a lot, asked deeper questions, and strove to achieve more than I could even dream.

This was one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, if not the saddest book. Paul’s writing is fantastic; it flows off the tongue and through your head, lyrical and eloquent, but direct and comprehensible. His thoughts are articulate and significant. He is honest in a way that allows you to accept everything he has to say, even though you’re quite sure he’s leaving many things out. And despite his education, his PhD’s, and his career in neurosurgery, all of which few could truly understand, he is still relatable. He had so much to learn, as a young student. He grew, as a student and as a person, to be kind and compassionate and trustworthy. He was exceptional at his job and confident in his daily life, but still he wept over deaths, over mistakes, over his diagnosis, over his daughter, over the life he had and the life he wouldn’t get to see. He had questions and he made choices and he strove to understand just what it is we’re all doing here on this earth.

That is what made me love him. I think we can all see a bit of ourselves at some point in his story. Whether it’s a struggle for greatness, a decision about priorities, a marital strife, the search for life’s meaning, or any number of moments he brings up in his book, there is commonality there.

We’re all just people, trying to live our best life. Some of us have more time than others, and some of us have it a bit more figured out than others. But we’re all on this same journey.

The biggest pieces that resonated with me were his thoughts on time and his thoughts on creating meaning.

We think we’re going to have time for everything we want to do. We think that we can plan the steps and milestones of our life and that the sequence of events will fall more or less within the time frame that we expected. But life is anything but predictable. Paul Kalanithi was dealt the worst hand when he got the news of the cancer spreading throughout his internal organs. He grappled with time and the meaning of his life. Even as he knew his time on earth was drawing to a close quicker than he anticipated, he still wondered what he should do with it. He has the argument that if he has X amount of time left, he would continue working as a neurosurgeon, and Y amount of time left he would write, and Z amount of time left, he would just enjoy his last moments with his family.

We all must have such an algorithm in our heads that we’ve never truly verbalized. We all have priorities, and, whether we admit it or not, we are basing our priorities on the amount of time we assume we will have.

At the same time, we want whatever time we have to mean something. Paul found meaning in neurosurgery. He saved lives, and more importantly, saved the true souls of the people he helped. If he made a mistake in their brains or couldn’t fix their brains, they might live but they wouldn’t even be the same person. What meaningful life is that, he thought.


I’ve found that meaning mostly comes through our relationships with people. The people we help and connect with, the people we love, the value we add to others’ lives. That’s what truly matters.

Although Paul said he would do different things, depending on how much time he thought he had left, I think those things were all just different ways to get to the same place. Paul knew that he had value to add to peoples’ lives. He could do that through neurosurgery, through scientific research, or through writing, but in the end it didn’t matter. Paul led a short, but meaningful life.

As I said, this memoir was terribly sad. We know that, unfortunately, the cancer wins in the end. And amazingly, it was not Paul’s recount of his life that had me in tears. He was not sad or defeated or broken by the end of his life, according to his own writing. He seemed strong and graceful. Rather, it was the epilogue written by his wife that had me sobbing. She recounted the final days of his life and the impact of his death. She wrote about her husband in a loving and knowing way. She told of the family who surrounded him. She spoke a bit of her own struggles to accept and deal with this hand. I couldn’t believe how much courage it must have taken her to write such a piece in her grief.

This book truly is a must-read. I would encourage you to read it, even if you say you don’t like sad books or memoirs, or whatever else excuse you may have. This is a memoir that is truly a piece of the author’s soul, and it is wonderfully written.




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