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Book Review of A Memoir — ‘When Breath Becomes Air’

Updated: Apr 17

Original Article was published in my Medium Page


Photograph of the Book — When Breadth Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi


Book Review of A Memoir — ‘When Breath Becomes Air’


As far my knowledge goes, Cancer is a disease in which the abnormal cells divide uncontrollably and destroy body tissues. The book ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi is about his life story and his fight with the disease, amidst the work he wanted to pursue in his life and the duties needed to be done for his family. To me it’s a very emotional story, the thought of which would linger around for days, I feel.


We all are humans and what Paul exhibited through his life is his desire to serve others as a neurosurgeon. His short life showed that even passion over-powered all negativity in life and the zeal to do something good for others even in the worst time requires purity in heart.


It’s a challenge for me to write a review of this book, because I personally feel that I am no one to review a real life story filled with passion, humanity and love. This is not just a book but a saga of an ordinary human, who did ordinary things and became extra-ordinary.


His book states that Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon and a writer. He spent his childhood at Kingman in Arizona and graduated from Stanford University with a BA and MA in English Literature and a BA in human biology. He earned his MPhil in history and philosophy of science and medicine from the University of Cambridge and graduated cum laude from the Yale School of Medicine. Later he returned to Stanford to complete his residency and his training in neurological surgery and a post –doctoral fellowship in neuro science, during which he received the American Academy of Neurological Surgery’s highest award for research.


This book of Paul was unfinished, yet the story of his life, which was later completed by his wife Lucy Kalanithi will surely make one emotional. During the last stages of Paul’s life, he tried to write relentlessly and tell the world his thoughts. Sometimes a reader may feel, how can one think of serving others even in their worst moments of one’s life? How can someone follow the passion of writing even when one can foresee death?


In the words of his wife Ms. Lucy Kalanithi, When Breadth Becomes Air is, in a sense, unfinished, derailed by Paul’s rapid decline, but that is an essential component of its truth, of the reality Paul faced. During the last years of his life, Paul wrote relentlessly, fueled by purpose, motivated by ticking clock….


(Excerpts taken from the book ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi)


This was Paul, who was once a doctor treating the dying and the next he was patient struggling to live…


Paul’s story silently answered many questions. The questions about humanity, the facts about love and human sentiment, the wish to serve with one’s broken health; all adds up to a soul’s determination to pursue life gazing at death.


Life is uncertain and I write here the quotation that is written in the book ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ from Baron Brooke Fulke Greville, “Caelica 83”


You that seek what life is in death

Now find it air that once was breadth.

New names unknown, old games gone.

Till time end bodies, but souls none.

Reader! Then make time, while you be,

But steps to your eternity.


The book starts with the introduction of Paul as a neurosurgeon aspirant and his thoughts through the eyes of a doctor. In his own words, he writes —


The Cadavers reverse the polarity. The mannequins you pretend are real; the cadavers you pretend are fake. But that first day, you just can’t. When I faced my cadaver, slightly blue and bloated, his total deadness and total humanness were undeniable. The knowledge that in four months I would be bisecting this man’s head with a hacksaw seemed unconscionable.

(Excerpts taken from the book ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi)


The author continues with his experience in the subject of neuroscience and his pain about not being able to give time to his family. He wrote about his fondness for his wife and that he always wanted her to be happy. In his career, he had experienced the life story of several patients and then one fine day, Paul became a patient himself.


Paul left for his heavenly abode in March 2015, with a wish that his writings may be published. Paul is survived by his wife Lucy and their daughter Elizabeth Acadia.


In the epilogue let me quote here the sayings from Emily Dickinson as mentioned,


You left me, sweet, two legacies — A legacy of love


A Heavenly Father would content,

Had he the offer of;

You left me boundaries of pain

Capacious as the Sea, between eternity and time,

Your consciousness and me.


- Emily Dickinson


(Excerpts taken from the book ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi)


Personally, I was deeply moved by the Epilogue, and it made me emotional.


If I have to rate the book on 10 stars and 10 being the highest, I will give the book 9 stars.


You can hear Ms. Lucy Kalanithi speaks at YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5-yBjKKicA&t=329s


(Please Note: The above are my own personal thoughts after going through the book. Your views and opinions after reading the book may differ)


Thanks for visiting the Book Review Website:



Thanks and Regards:

Mainak Majumdar, Book Critic

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