Jason Kane's Reviews > When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
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it was amazing

Let’s put this out there from the start. This book is raw, emotional, thoughtful, and heartbreaking. While light and breezy in terms of structure, the content is as heavy as it gets. This is not the first book written by someone with the grim perspective of knowing the end is near, but it may be the first by someone with as unique a set of experiences as Paul Kalanithi.

When Breath Becomes Air is Kalanithi’s account of dealing with the fragility of mortality. At 36 years old, as he is finishing up his training as a neurosurgeon, Kalanithi suddenly discovers he has lung cancer that rapidly leaves him weakened and in pain. He recounts the irony of doctor turned patient and pads each experience with the proper oddness of hearing his family members say the things he’s used to hearing from those of his patients. Providing the patient’s experience and transformation from the doctor’s perspective is endlessly fascinating. The terminal diagnosis Kalanithi receives is while starkly shocking, never something to be pitied. Knowing you are living prolonged life rather than living a life with no idea when it ends does not have to be as tragic as it sounds.

I mentioned Kalanithi’s unique set of experiences. What makes him both a fascinating narrator and a powerful writer are due to two elements. One - Kalanithi has a broad background in classic literature, and two, as a neurosurgeon he has a great understanding of the brain, surgically. Rarely is there someone prepared to tell a story like this so eloquently, but Kalanithi’s background in literature makes him most apt to explain the seemingly unexplainable through allusion and metaphorical connections. That along with his surgical knowledge makes him keen to concisely tackle the psychology of terminal illness along with the emotional and report it to the reader in a palatable way. Kalanithi balances his perspectives of death as doctor and patient well. His doctor side resists the whole, “Why me?” mentality, and not to look at cancer as a “battle.” His patient side reexamines how his condition requires goals to strive towards a quality of life that is attainable and rewarding.

As his illness progresses, Kalanithi and his wife Lucy ask themselves questions about mortality, and they are questions that all people probably have asked themselves, only Kalanithi is willing to pose some possible answers and actions. Spirituality is noticeably absent but rightfully so. This story would not benefit from excluding or alienating anyone. Literature is the closest thing to spirituality, and as a book about mortality, it is appropriate that Kalanithi cites literature as a major calming for his spirts and in many cases the impetus for the questions he and Lucy pose and answer about life and mortality. One such answer results in the line, “We decided to carry on living, rather than dying.” In this way, When Breath Becomes Air is as interactive as it is poignant and beautifully tragic. This book ends abruptly, and while a short read, it is impossible to forget. A
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Reading Progress

March 15, 2017 – Started Reading
March 23, 2017 – Shelved
March 23, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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Lindsay Santilli So well said! I read this at the recommendation of a friend who did warn me of the sadness I was about to get into, but also with the reassurance that it would become one of my favorite books. And it is, for certain. It was so well written that I enjoyed every page, and despite the tears it brought I almost felt rejuvenated after finishing it. I literally said to myself, "I WISH I could have known this man."

Jason Kane Thanks, Lindsay. I definitely needed to clean the palate after that one. I listened to a dumb X-Files production on Audible. It was just what I needed :)

Cancer sucks.

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