When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air

Book - 2016
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#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER * PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST * T his inspiring, exquisitely observed memoir finds hope and beauty in the face of insurmountable odds as an idealistic young neurosurgeon attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?

NAMED ONE OF PASTE 'S BEST MEMOIRS OF THE DECADE * NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review * People * NPR * The Washington Post * Slate * Harper's Bazaar * Time Out New York * Publishers Weekly * BookPage

Finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction and the Books for a Better Life Award in Inspirational Memoir

At the age of thirty-six, 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.
Publisher: New York, New York :, Random House,, 2016, ©2016.
Edition: First edition.
ISBN: 9780812988406
Branch Call Number: 616. 99424 KAL
Characteristics: xix, 228 pages ; 20 cm


From Library Staff

A profoundly moving, exquisitely
observed memoir by a young
neurosurgeon faced with a
terminal cancer diagnosis
attempting to answer the
question: What makes a life
worth living?

A beautiful, dignified euphemism for death we hadn't heard before.

From the critics

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Mar 10, 2020

Paul Kalanithi was successful by every societal standard. He had graduated from Stanford with double majors in English and Biology and earned advanced degrees in both fields before becoming a Chief Resident at the Stanford Hospital. He was a talented academic, diligent neurosurgeon and loving husband, with the world at hand and the brightest future one could possibly imagine. ⁣

But when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, everything came crashing down. ⁣

When Breath Becomes Air is divided into two sections — one that relates Paul’s journey of discovering his calling as a neurosurgeon after a lengthy but indirect grapple with death, and the other as he is granted the wish of experiencing death more directly, but not in the manner he wished he would. ⁣

Paul’s writing is concise but intimate. Despite his countless encounters with death and suffering during his career, the book still unveils his bewilderment and fragility in face of cancer. Yet it is precisely this vulnerability that reveals another side of him — beneath the enviably glossy resume is only a human, whose fears and hopes are the same as those of any other. ⁣

I’m really glad I read this book immediately after finishing Love, Money & Parenting. After thinking about people as rational, informed, resource-allocating creatures who could be categorized by sociological variables, it is easy to forget that these statistics are individuals, each of whom lives among us, as doctors, patients, friends, and family. ⁣

In a global mentality that continues to think in “us vs. them,” it is easy to be blinded by socially constructed barriers. ⁣

But our lives on Earth are only finite, and despite all our differences throughout these journeys, at the end we are only the same. ⁣

One moment it is breath in, breath out, and in the next, breath has become air. ⁣

For more book reviews, visit me on Instagram @ RandomStuffIRead

LoganLib_Kirra Jan 30, 2020

When Breath Becomes Air is a moving memoir from a young neurosurgeon diagnosed with a terminal cancer. After working tirelessly for a decade training, learning and performing surgeries Paul is almost at the end of his residency when he starts to feel unwell and unlike himself. Reading the signs of his symptoms Paul knows there is definitely something wrong, but he undergoes tests to confirm his fears. The moment he hears the results his life is changed forever, from doctor to patient and confident to scared out of his mind.

I was overcome with sadness for this man in only the first few pages as I imagined how difficult his journey during this book was over the two years he spent writing it. Not just the physical pain he went through as his body failed to keep him alive, but the disappointment of his loss, the shame of not being able to live his life the same way and the loss of his future and family. I found this book fascinating, though, not just because it was a first-hand account of his descent into his illness but also for the medical stories of his own patients and practices. It was a book I enjoyed reading from start to finish and I do believe it's one you won't quickly forget.

Jan 24, 2020

Kalanithi's prose is a bit leaden and the flow isn't always smooth, but he showed promise as a writer. It is sad he had to die so young. This short memoir is a touching testament to a man who came to grips with his own mortality and made sure his loved ones would be okay after he passed on.

FPL_Sunita Dec 29, 2019

When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir by Paul Kalanithi, who was a neurosurgeon, husband and father. A must read powerful small book is all about a subtle yet profound reality check and truly proves its purpose, to give you a clarity about life and death.

Nov 24, 2019


IndyPL_SarahW Nov 11, 2019

This is an intimate and detailed account of Dr. Kalanithi's diagnosis of Stage IV Lung Cancer. Dr. Kalanthi was in the prime of his life at 36 following years of training as a neurosurgeon and enjoying his young married life when he was diagnosed. In this book, you will follow his journey of life and the pursuit of a young family. This book is written in a first-person narrative by Dr. Kalanthi and it really makes you think of what's really important in life. This is worth the read and it is a quick and in-depth and valuable read. This book will encourage people faced with a loved one suffering from terminal illness. There are some deep sad moments, moments of angst and some levity.

Aug 08, 2019

I would not have read this if it wasn't a selection for my Book Club, but I'm glad I did. Beautiful and breathtaking and sad.

Jul 06, 2019

A memoir/essay/treatise by a brilliant neurosurgeon who died before the age of 40 from cancer. Part One - his story of his search for meaning as a doctor dealing with untold death amid fervent striving for a fulfilling life - was profound and wise. As he tries to become the doctor he most wants to be, he writes, "I began to suspect that being so close to the fiery light of such moments only blinded me to their nature, like trying to learn astronomy by staring directly at the sun. I was not yet with patients in their pivotal moments, I was merely at those pivotal moments." He's humble about the disconnect between doctor and patient and wants desperately to change that. Part Two - his memoir of his short time from diagnosis to death as he strill strives for relationships, meaning, enlightenment, and truth - is at times unbearably sad and yet exquisitely beautiful. And it's all followed by an epilogue from his wife that's stunning.

Mar 16, 2019

Maybe I wasn’t in the mood for this type of book.. it was a book I kept putting down until I forced myself to finish it. It was gripping in some parts, but seemed rushed (rightfully so). I did start liking it by the middle and end. The epilogue was also good. Overall, I respect kalanithi’s efforts to write it - he inspires readers to pursue their dreams, for life is too short to do otherwise.

Dec 17, 2018

Best part about book was psychologist advice while he had cancer.

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Add a Quote
Dec 27, 2018

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 lot unknown to me in a my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied.

Nov 16, 2018

"Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process."

Nov 16, 2018

"In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer an eighth, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth. Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete."

Nov 16, 2018

"A match flickers but does not light. The mother's wailing in room 543, the searing red rims of the father's lower eyelids, tears silently streaking his face: this flip side of joy, the unbearable, unjust, unexpected presence of death... What possible sense could be made, what words were there for comfort?"

Jul 10, 2018

"You can't ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving."

Jan 30, 2018

"... As a resident [neurosurgeon], my highest ideal was not saving lives - everyone dies eventually - but guiding a patient or family to an understanding of death or illness. ... The families [of the patient] see the past, the ... memories, the freshly felt love, all represented by the body before them. I see the possible futures, the breathing machines connected [to] the neck, the pasty liquid dripping [into] the belly, the possible long, painful, and only partial recovery - or, sometimes more likely, no return at all of the person they remember. In these moments, I acted not, as I most often did, as death's enemy, but as its ambassador. I had to help those families understand that the person they know ... now lived only in the past and that I needed their input to understand what sort of future he or she would want: an easy death or to be strung between bags of fluids ... to persist despite being unable to struggle." (p. 87-88)

ArapahoeMaryA Jan 26, 2017

...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.

Jan 18, 2017

You can't ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.

Aug 18, 2016

I was less driven by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: 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.

Aug 05, 2016

Chemotherapy began on Monday. Lucy, my mother and I went to the infusion center together. I had an IV placed, settled into an easy chair and waited.

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Mar 16, 2019

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Aug 05, 2016

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Add a Summary
Nov 16, 2018

"When Breath Becomes Air" is an autobiography of a doctor who became a patient after being diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. At first it starts with Kalanithi in good health and working towards his goals and becoming a neurosurgeon. He is highly motivated and interested in pursuing mortality and what makes a life meaningful. During this period he is the one who guides terminally ill patients and families through the changes in their lives and must help them come to terms with the decisions they need to make. Then suddenly, the roles are reversed upon him and Kalanithi becomes the patient and he is the one being guided through the changes and decisions. The sudden change is shocking, yet he manages to work through it. In the final stages of his life, he begins to reflect his life and wonder what to do with a single day. By the end, it seems he has come to some form of acceptance of his own mortality. Yet throughout the autobiography is the thoughtfulness and the theme of mortality and death.
At first, he wanted to "uncloak death" and stare at it unblinking. But when he faced his own mortality, he found that it seemed very different. Death once so surreal had suddenly become his reality. And he had to navigate through it without any experience. He found himself lost and unsure of what directions to take. During this time, he began to realize what his patients had gone through and the true weight of mortality.
But what really sticks is this quote: "Years ago, it had occurred to me that Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing: that defining characteristic of the organism is striving."

Aug 18, 2016

After ten years of medical education, Paul Kalanithi was on the verge of completing his training as a neurosurgeon when he became concerned about his own health. At first he blamed the rigours of residency, but a CT scan soon revealed the worst: cancer in the lungs, spine, and liver. Early in his university career, Kalanithi studied literature, dreaming of a career as a writer, but was driven to medicine by questions about mortality and meaning that he felt could not be answered by literature alone. Suddenly, those questions became urgent and personal, and the only time left to write a book and achieve that dream was now.

Aug 05, 2016

This book is one of the best 75 books in the past 75 years and it was just published this year. It will be truly a classic when you consider it’s about a neurosurgeon who discovers he has lung cancer. As the summary on the back of the box says – “One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live.” Only 36 years old Kalanithi had many questions he wanted answers to – “What make 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?” Together with his large, loving family Kalanithi discovers the meaning of life. He was a brilliant writer and surgeon and was transformed as he explored literature in pursuit of what is important in life. I admire that he found what he was looking for and reported in a sensitive, matter-of-fact way without sentimentality.


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