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All booksMemoirWhen Breath Becomes Air
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Memoir

When Breath Becomes Air

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Each year thousands of members vote for our Book of the Year award—congrats to When Breath Becomes Air!

by Paul Kalanithi

Quick take

A brilliant, inspiring exploration of how to live a meaningful life in the face of death.

Synopsis

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 naive 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.'" When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.

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Member thoughts

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1404 ratings
  • 72% Love
  • 25% Like
  • 2% Dislike
  • Mount Joy, PA

    As I sit casually sobbing on an airplane...this book truely pushes you to think about your life and how your living it, as well as coming to terms with your own mortality. Heart wrenching but so good.

  • Los Angeles, CA

    A stunning read about a young doctor's fatal cancer diagnosis. His exploration of transition from doctor to patient is intelligent, compelling, and profoundly moving. Your heart will soar - and break.

  • Denver, CO

    The epilogue made me weep at a table at While Foods. I promptly made a list of what I had learned and didn't want to forget later. I will certainly return to these words if I ever must face an illness

  • Lansing, MI

    This book is a must-read for everyone and anyone. Especially those in the medical world. Paul is an amazing writer and I will never forget this memoir and what it taught me about both life and dying.

  • MCHENRY, IL

    Such a beautiful book! It was smaller than I expected but I loved it. At first I wasn't sure if I was going to like it because it talked a lot about medical but once I got into it I couldn't drop it.

  • Powder Springs, GA

    This posthumous memoir was challenging and beautiful. Paul was a brave & bright soul, and I'm thankful he created this piece of himself to be left. The afterward by his wife is moving and memorable.

  • Marlborough, MA

    Truly eye opening. For those who momentarily forget how important each minute of our lives are, a powerful reminder to live out each second in love and happiness. Everyone should read this, EVERYONE.

  • Lindenhurst, NY

    Beautifully written and emotional - hits close to home for anyone who has lost a loved one to cancer. A new and fascinating perspective on life/death from a man who has been both doctor and patient.

  • Seneca, SC

    Paul Kalanithi was an amazing human not only in his story telling but in the way he relates his story as if he is talking directly to you the reader. I loved his story and his dedication to medicine

  • Marlborough, MA

    This story had interesting trues stories of his doctor experiences, introspective insights on how he personally viewed his life and enlightening views on life that made me sob and appreciate life.

  • VIRGINIA BEACH, VA

    WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR is a deeply insightful and heartfelt memoir. There is no doubt Dr. Kalanithi made remarkable contributions to the medical field, and to the literary world as well. ~jeni b~

  • Lisbon, ME

    Perfect timing to read this book. I recently went to a Palliative Care Conference where this book was referenced. It reinforces that we indeed need to change our culture so we can accept death.

  • Reno, NV

    This book is a beautifully written tearjerker that I loved through and through. It is such an amazing, real-world look at the ups and downs of life and just how tragically messy it can truly be.

  • Boonton, NJ

    At times this memoir was difficult to read. Exciting News: His widow is engaged to the widower of Nina Riggs who also wrote a memoir when she was dying of breast cancer called "The Bright Hours".

  • Saint louis, MO

    This is the best book I have read through book of the month and my new favorite book. As a cancer survivor and future doctor, there has never been a better narrative on the nuances of mortality.

  • Mentor, OH

    This book is simply beautiful. As a healthcare practitioner myself, who has seen my own health decline due to chronic illness, I felt a sort of kinship with Dr. Kalanithi. May he Rest In Peace.

  • New York, NY

    WOW. This book will break your heart and fill it at the same time. I openly sobbed while reading it. Anyone who is looking for a new take on what it really means to live should read this book.

  • Monett, MO

    This is a story of a man whose career enabled others to have a better quality life and quantity to their days. Sadly, he did not get the same for he was cut down in the prime of his life!

  • Waltham, MA

    Sobbed through the epilogue. I've been trying to figure out what I want to want to do with my life and this book was very inspiring to find something that makes your life and others worth it.

  • Payson, AZ

    After dealing with a loss of my own this year, this book was perfect. It provided a conversation that I needed to have in order to sort through my own grief. An absolute must read for anyone.

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