Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

★★★★½

I recommended this book to four people before I’d even finished it.when-breath

It was beautiful—profound and honest and thick with questions of mortality and goodness. Kalanithi became a neurosurgeon/neuroscientist because he wanted to be at the cornerstone where “biology, morality, literature, and philosophy intersect”, and throughout the book he helps readers come to understand how by examining the brain, self-identity, interpersonal relationships, and how all of these can be affected by disease or injury.

“Doctors in highly charged fields met patients at inflected moments, the most authentic moments, where life and identity were under threat; their duty included learning what made that particular patient’s life worth living, and planning to save those things if possible—or to allow the peace of death if not. Such power required deep responsibility, sharing in guilt and recrimination.”

In the end, upon being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, Kalanithi’s deepest questions for his patients became those he then had to ask himself: What makes makes a life worth living?

At its core, When Breath Becomes Air is about a dying man trying to come to grips with life. The book itself never answers the big questions—in fact, the book wasn’t completed when Kalanithi died. Instead, it’s up to readers to figure things out for themselves; but the foundation he lays is enough to make anyone reevaluate their priorities.

Now, though I hate to be ~that person~ saying semi-negative things about a book written by a now-deceased person, the main reason this wasn’t a 5-star rating for me is because at times it was painfully overwritten—the prose was so purple my eyes bled. I kind of understand that you can’t talk about life and death without getting a little carried away, but it pulled me out of the book at times. I’m a fan of very, very simply writing with almost no flair.

Secondly, the foreword was completely unnecessary and added nothing to the book. This, too, was overwritten, to a stronger degree than the actual book. And Lucy’s epilogue, though heartbreaking, was insanely long for an epilogue (as in the narrator paused for a moment after 10 minutes or so and I thought it was over, I checked my phone and I still had 30 more minutes to go… of the epilogue). Parts of it probably could have been removed without diminishing its poignancy.

[Again, sorry for being ~~THAT GUY~~ but I can’t turn off my inner, bitchy, judgmental editor apparently.]

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