Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
When Breath Becomes Air
By Paul Kalanithi
Random House
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

I had fully been expecting Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air — in which a 36-year-old neurosurgeon writes a memoir about his own upcoming death by cancer — to be a weepy tearjerker; so it’s a testament to Kalanithi’s writing skills that it’s instead a clear-eyed, thought-provoking intellectual treatise about mortality and why humans react to the subject in the ways they do. Then again, it helps that Kalanithi actually acquired degrees in literature and philosophy before going to med school, and in fact only turned to medicine in the first place in a roundabout way; always fascinated by the human mind and in the ways humans interact with each other, he first spent his twenties delving into the arts to find answers to these subjects, only to realize that the true way to satisfy his curiosity was to directly study the biochemistry of the brain itself, putting himself through a grueling ten-year training ordeal that nearly ended his marriage, just to finally graduate and promptly be informed that he had a year left to live.

Unfortunately, though, the book isn’t very good for the purpose it had been originally been recommended to me; for like most middle-aged children of elderly parents in declining health, I find myself wrestling these days with Big Questions about the end of life, the quality of that life at the end of it, and what the proper way is for both the people at the end of that life and the people around them to react to such developments, and had hoped that this book might shine some light on these weighty issues. Kalanithi’s main conclusion about it all, though, is basically, “Impending death is an inherently confusing, horrifying and baffling thing, and I reacted to it with pretty much all the chaos that everyone else does too…although it did help a little bit to start believing in God again.” (Also, be aware that the last 25 pages of this 225-page book are written by Kalanithi’s wife after his death, sort of summing up what happened once he got too sick to write; and she’s a much worse writer, one who regularly wallows in sentimentality like a 22-year-old suburbanite bathing in cheap cologne before a night at the clubs, making a substantial amount of this book’s total page count easily skippable altogether.)

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The reason to read this, then, is as a primer on how to handle impending death with a kind of grace, dignity and thoughtfulness that’s rarely seen in people about to die, obviously the main reason the book’s become so popular in the year now it’s been out; but don’t pick it up expecting any kinds of insights on mortality, because Kalanithi has none to give, which obviously is itself a telling statement about whether there actually are any kinds of insights about mortality to share in the first place, but you don’t need to read the whole book simply to know that the answer here is “no.” But that being said, it’s still a really well-done memoir, one that deliberately skips all the easy beats that usually come with this subject in order to deliver something much more intelligent and honest. It comes recommended in that particular spirit.

Out of 10: 8.5

Read more about When Breath Becomes Air | Official site | Amazon | Goodreads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia |

Jason Pettus is the owner of CCLaP, and a former novelist, slam poet and travel writer. During the day he is a front-end software developer within the Chicago tech startup community. Goodreads | LibraryThing | Twitter | Instagram | Letterboxd