When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This book is incredible. Like incredible. Sometimes when something is published posthumously by an unknown author, I feel like the way people rave about it is coloured by the author’s death, like no one really wants to critique a dead person. Not the case here. Paul Kalanithi was a genuinely wonderful writer, and would have absolutely gone on to produce great things had he lived.

If you haven’t heard anything about this book, it’s about a neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer just as he finished his training. He was a man who sought throughout his life to understand death and life and meaning, and grapples a lot in the book with the question of literature versus science.

His writing is very lyrical, in places it’s near poetry. I read it with a pen all the way through, underlining sometimes as much as an entire page. Even in the way he writes about medicine, science, and death, it’s obvious that he viewed these things with the mind of a writer. It’s a deeply philosophical look at medicine. It’s a beautiful book, and a heartbreaking one (to quote Atul Gawande and the quote which features on the cover) – but it’s not sad. I did cry reading this, but only reading the afterword from his wife. This book is not about oh woe is me I have this terrible disease (although you could absolutely forgive anyone in his position for writing something like that), it’s about trying to understand life and death.

I read a lot of books about cancer. It’s probably an unhealthy habit, but I do. I lost my grandma to cancer in 2012 and I think that since then, I’ve been struggling to understand how I feel about that, to find a way to understand it. This book, more than any other I’ve read in the last three years, has helped me make sense of that loss, and of my anger about the disease that took her. It’s not that the book offers an explanation, it just shows a man looking for the same answers, as both a doctor working with terminal patients, and as a patient suffering from a terminal disease. I couldn’t tell you what exactly I learnt from this book, but I came away from it feeling less like I needed answers.

It’s a special book. Read it.


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