Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Short review: When Breath Becomes Air is as deep a look into death as one can have without actually experiencing it first hand. Introspective and philosophical, Kalanithi illustrates how being acutely aware of one’s mortality can simultaneously push them to have the most meaningful life possible.
Death is certain, but does the meaning of life change when death is also imminent?
The question is vaguely philosophical, which is appropriate given that When Breath Becomes Air is likely one of the most philosophical books I’ve ever read outside of academia. Perhaps philosophizing of this depth is the result of a desperation associated with someone sizing up death. A man’s yearning to summarize his years in the hopes of discovering he’d lived a few that made life worthwhile. This is a partially convincing argument, but not entirely so. I have a sneaking suspicion that Paul Kalanithi was simply brilliant, both in the light of his vibrant youth, and in the darkest hours before his passing.
A neurosurgery student for his formidable years, Paul Kalanithi had always planned to be a writer in his old age. Within the pages of When Breath Becomes Air, Kalanithi illustrates just how well he would have succeeded, had he been allowed the opportunity. Not to be overlooked, those several years in medical school gave him a perspective of his illness that was unique to someone so knowledgeable of the human body. He knew he had cancer. Feeling the crippling pain in his back, and watching his body shed pounds, he knew he had cancer.
And he knew it was bad.
When Breath Becomes Air is the result of a man determining his legacy in the last months of his life. The reflections within it are intellectual, nearly academic. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to call this a Meditation, in the Cartesian vein. By the end, I wanted to place Kalanithi’s name alongside the philosophers of death that he quotes so often. Those men are ones taught in classes, but Kalanithi fills the gap between experiential and a priori knowledge. Much to his chagrin as a doctor, some things, such as death and even terminal illness, can only be understood through the first hand experience of a patient.
I gave this book 5 out of 5 stars, which is a rarity for me. The book is both imperfect and unfinished, which as Paul’s wife says, adds to the novel’s authenticity. She’s right: a posthumously polished novel would stand between readers and the man we’ll never get to meet in person. It’s not a book that is easily enjoyed, because readers already know what is coming. I had particular trouble toward the end, which brought back images of my own grandmother’s passing from cancer several months ago. For similar reasons, When Breath Becomes Air will hit home for many people. However, I encourage you to give it a read if you’re curious about death, or about how one’s relationship with it changes toward the end of life.