“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

Dr. Atul Gawande‘s Being Mortal, about the role of medicine when a patient is facing death, was a top nonfiction seller last year. Now USA Today calls Dr. Paul Kalanithi‘s similar-in-category and posthumously published When Breath Becomes Air “(t)he first big breakout book of 2016.”

Kalanithi was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer in his 30’s. The following info is from his publisher:

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.

From Stanford University’s 2015 obituary for Kalanithi, some important background that led to an editor encouraging him to write When Breath Becomes Air:

Kalanithi’s essays, “How Long Have I Got Left?” for The New York Times and “Before I Go” for Stanford Medicine, reflected his insights on grappling with mortality, his changing perception of time and the meaning he continued to experience despite his illness.

One oft-cited passage about his struggles is from the first of the above essays (2014):

I remember the moment when my overwhelming uneasiness yielded. Seven words from Samuel Beckett, a writer I’ve not even read that well, learned long ago as an undergraduate, began to repeat in my head, and the seemingly impassable sea of uncertainty parted: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’ I took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’ And then, at some point, I was through.

“What makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay?” is one of the main questions Kalanithi wanted to answer in When Breath Becomes Air. Apparently, though, to those who knew him this kind of wondering was a notable part of his style.

Lucy Kalanithi, an internist, recently penned an op-ed, “My Marriage Didn’t End When I Became a Widow,” which describes not only her bereavement process but also her ongoing connection to her husband. “The commitment and loyalty, my desire to do right by him, especially as I raise our daughter, will never end.”

Meet Paul below in the book trailer:

Maria Popova, Brainpickings: “What emerges is an uncommonly insightful, sincere, and sobering revelation of how much our sense of self is tied up with our sense of potential and possibility — the selves we would like to become, those we work tirelessly toward becoming. Who are we, then, and what remains of ‘us’ when that possibility is suddenly snipped?”

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