When Breath Becomes Air

41jFVZL72YLWhen Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is one of the most powerful books I have read. While it was a quick read, accomplished in a few hours, I won’t easily forget either the beautiful prose or the thoughtful approach. Paul Kalanithi was in his last year of residency for neurosurgery when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. This book is the chronicle of his years in school as well as the last months of his life. My only (very minor) complaint about this book, other than the immense sadness in reading it, was the distant tone of the author. However, upon reading the ending, written after his death by his wife, we can understand why this distance is powerful and perfect. She writes, “Paul’s voice in When Breath Becomes Air is strong and distinctive, but also somewhat solitary. Parallel to this story are the warmth and spaciousness and radial permission that surrounded him. We all inhabit different selves in space and time. Here he is as a doctor, as a patient, and within a doctor-patient relationship. He wrote with a clear voice, the voice of someone with limited time, a ceaseless striver, though there were other selves as well. Not fully captured in these pages are Paul’s sense of humor – he was wickedly funny – or his sweetness and tenderness, the value he placed on relationships with friends and family. But this is the book he wrote; this was his voice during this time; this was his message during this time; this was what he wrote when he needed to write it. Indeed, the version of Paul I miss most, more even than the robust, dazzling version with whom I first fell in love, is the beautiful, focused man he was in his last year, the Paul who wrote this book – frail but never weak.” While this is a devastatingly difficult book to read, it is absolutely worth it. What an amazing legacy.

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