Book Rec: When Breath Becomes Air
Updated: Apr 1
“If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?” – Paul Kalanithi
At the age of 36, 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.
Kalanithi quotes Samuel Beckett's seven words: “I can't go on. I'll go on." What does that mean, not just for Paul Kalanithi but for all of us? In the face of dying, especially prolonged, how does one "go on?”
Kalanithi said that he acted in caring for his patients as "death's ambassador." "Those burdens, he wrote, "are what makes medicine holy and wholly impossible." What does he mean?
How do you think the years Kalanithi spent, tending to patients and training to be a neurosurgeon, affected the outlook he had on his own illness? When he wrote that the question he asked himself was not "why me," but "why not me," how did that strike you? Could you relate to it?
Why did Kalanithi and his wife decide to have a child after his diagnosis? What would you do?
How would you go about dying? How do you think of death?