Review: When Breath Becomes Air

What makes a life worth living? Paul Kalanithi attempts to find the answer in this incredible memoir.

When breath becomes air


At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. 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.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’”

Length: 256 Pages

Publisher: Random House

Release Date: January 12, 2016

About the Author

Paul Kalanithi
Paul Kalanithi, his wife Lucy, and their daughter, Cadi, in 2014. (Suszi Lurie McFadden)

Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon and a writer. He grew up in Kingman, Arizona, and graduated from Stanford University with a BA and MA in English Literature and a BA in human biology. He earned an MPhil in history and philosophy of science and medicine from the University of Cambridge and graduated Cum Laude from the Yale School of Medicine, where he was inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha national medical honor society. He returned to Stanford to complete his residency training in neurological surgery and a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience, during which he received the American Academy of Neurological Surgery’s highest award for research. He died in March 2015. He is survived by his large, loving, family, including his wife, Lucy, and their daughter, Elizabeth Acadia.


Knowing the author, Paul Kalanithi, has died, while reading the words he wrote about dying and death has the potential to be a bit unnerving. But what it really did for When Breath Becomes Air is add depth and perspective.

Who better to write about death than someone who is facing it himself?

But Paul Kalanithi’s quest to understand death didn’t start with his diagnosis of lung cancer. It started many years before when he was studying literature, and is one of the reasons he chose to go to medical school.

What gives life meaning? This is a question that Paul had to confront constantly in his profession as a neurosurgeon. If an individual has a large brain tumor, and removing that tumor will result in complete loss of language…a life without being able to communicate, or even understand language…is that life still worth living? His job was to discuss this with his patients and find out what gave their life meaning. Sometimes it is better to let go. Which leads to the next question.

How does one face death with integrity? Paul learned to not just confront death, but to embrace it, as hard as it was. I’m not sure many people can do that.

When Breath Becomes Air provides a unique perspective of a life well-lived, and I loved that his wife wrote an afterword describing the circumstances of Paul’s death from her perspective. This book offers many chances for self-reflection on our own lives. I really love books that make me think and analyze my own life, and how I can make it better.

Paul says that before he was diagnosed with cancer, he didn’t know how long he had to live. And then after his diagnosis, he still didn’t know how long he had to live. It could have been 10 months or 10 years. Nothing had changed. But he had. He had changed.

I really enjoyed this book, though parts of it seemed so vivid in description, that the meaning became lost among the description.

Overall, I give this book 4 out of 5 stars

Content (0 being none and 5 being A LOT)

Language- 3

Though there is not a lot of language throughout the book, there is a scene where the f-word is used several times.






When Breath Becomes Air is available both digitally and in hardback. You can purchase it by clicking on the image below.

Happy Reading!





2 thoughts on “Review: When Breath Becomes Air

  1. This book sounds so good! I was a little nervous when I first started to read the review, but I realized as I went that this could really broaden my perspective on a lot of things. Just one question– if he died while writing it does it stop in the middle, or did someone finish it for him? I can’t help it I’m just thinking of An Imperial Affliction (the book Hazel read in The Fault in Our Stars) and the idea of a book actually ending like that scares me

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it definitely broadened my perspective. It actually isn’t a depressing book, despite it focusing so much on death. Paul actually finished writing it, so it is all his own words. His wife wrote an epilogue to finish his story (the circumstances surrounding his death, etc.) It is actually quite uplifting in a lot of ways


Comments are closed.