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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

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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 ratings (2,592)

  • Sarah K.

    Waxahachie, TX

    One I’ll be thinking about for some time. I loved the juxtaposition of medicine and philosophy. The questions “what makes life worth living” and “how can one approach death” are eloquently explored.

  • Morgan M.

    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.

  • Carolyn C.

    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

  • Louise H.

    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.

  • Lauren D.

    Ferndale, 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.

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