I had a feeling that Paul Kalanithi’s memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, would be a powerful read. In fact I called it a “once in a decade” book, before I even read it. I wasn’t wrong.
I don’t think there’s a lot I can say to augment the rhapsodic reviews this book has rightly received, but I still wanted to add my voice to the loud chorus of people celebrating Kalanithi’s courage, his unflinching gaze, his poetic prose, his incredibly powerful first and last book. This book is unforgettable.
There are so many things about When Breath Becomes Air that I loved, so many sentences I underlined, so many points where I cried. Kalanithi was both a doctor and a lover of literature, and that particular combination is one of my very favorite to read (Verghese, Sacks, and Gawande are giants in my life, and Kalanithi belongs in their company). Kalanithi sought to understand the boundary between life and death, and the ways that the irrefutable presence of the latter shapes the former. In his own words: “Neurosurgery attracted me as much for its intertwining of brain and consciousness as for its intertwining of life and death.” The book is one man’s meditation on this intertwining truth, which abruptly transitions for him from an abstract fascination to a brutal reality.
Though he was a profoundly gifted physician, it seems to me that Kalanithi’s soul was one of a writer, and a reader. “Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection,” he writes early in a book dotted with quotes and references to books as wide ranging as T.S. Eliot and Thomas Browne.
One of my favorite passages in When Breath Becomes Air is Kalanithi’s musings on the inadequacy of scientific thought to really capture the “existential, visceral nature of human life.” This reminded me of my writing about growing up in the space between my father’s faith in the rational mind and his abiding awe of the ineffable. “No system of though can contain the fullness of the human experience,” writes Kalanithi, and I found myself nodding. Indeed. It cannot. So much of writing – all of it? – is a writer’s attempt to capture his or her own experience, don’t you think? We scratch on the glass, we grasp at something as it drifts through our hands, we try, as best as we can, to say: this is what life is for me, and maybe that will help you know what it is for you.
When Breath Becomes Air is short and reads quickly. When I was most of the way through, I took Whit to a hockey game. I walked out of the rink and felt the world had shifted. Literally something was different in the air I walked through; it was crisper, clearer, more defined. Kalanithi’s story rang in my head as I walked to the car to get something I’d forgotten. The best books do this, of course: they change our experience of living in the world.
Lucy Kalanithi, Paul’s widow, wrote the afterword that concludes the book. She writes a heartbreaking, beautiful account of Paul’s final days, and I read those pages through floods of tears. She also asserts that Paul “found poetry more comforting than Scripture,” which is resonant for me. Her last sentences are clear, sharp, strong, and perfect:
“For much of his life, Paul wondered about death – and whether he could face it with integrity. In the end, the answer was yes. I was his wife and a witness.”
Read this book. It will shine a light on your life. I promise you it will.
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