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“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi is a memoir about Kalanithi’s experience as a neurosurgeon diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at 36. The book is a moving and thought-provoking exploration of what it
means to live and die and what it means to be a doctor and a patient. It is a beautiful and inspiring book that will stay with you long after reading it. It is a must-read for anyone who has ever faced loss or adversity.
- Genre: Memoir, Medicine, Philosophy
- Themes: Life and Death, Meaning of Existence, Medicine and Mortality, Human Resilience, Identity
What is this book about?
“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi is a profoundly moving memoir that explores the intersection of life, death, and the pursuit of meaning. Paul Kalanithi, a talented neurosurgeon, was on the cusp of a promising career when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. This diagnosis transformed his life and made him reflect deeply on what it means to live a meaningful life in the face of mortality.
The book begins with Kalanithi’s early life, his passion for literature and science, and his journey to becoming a neurosurgeon. He intertwines his personal story with his professional experiences to provide readers a unique insight into the difficulties and complexities of caring for people with life-threatening illnesses.
Kalanithi’s life takes an unexpected turn when he receives his devastating diagnosis. He documents his experience as a patient, struggling with the harsh truths of his condition and the significant issues it brings up on the purpose of life and the certainty of death.
Throughout the memoir, Kalanithi reflects on the philosophical and existential aspects of his experience. He explores profound themes, such as the fragility of human existence, the role of suffering, the importance of empathy in medicine, and the search for identity in the face of impending death.
Kalanithi’s writing is both poignant and eloquent as he navigates the complexities of mortality. He shares his innermost thoughts and emotions, providing readers with a raw and honest account of his battle with cancer and his quest to find purpose and meaning in the time he has left.
The book also delves into the role of relationships and love in the face of terminal illness. Kalanithi’s relationship with his wife, Lucy, is a central focus, highlighting the resilience and strength of their bond as they navigate the challenges of illness together.
“When Breath Becomes Air” reflects what it means to be fully alive, even in the shadow of death. It’s a testament to the human spirit’s capacity for hope, courage, and transcendence in the face of profound adversity.
- Life is precious and fragile. Kalanithi’s cancer diagnosis forced him to confront his own mortality and appreciate the preciousness of life.
- It is essential to find meaning and purpose in your life. Kalanithi found meaning and purpose in his work as a neurosurgeon, his relationships with his loved ones, and his pursuit of knowledge.
- It is also important to be able to let go. Kalanithi realized that he could not control his cancer. Still, he could control his attitude and how he lived his remaining days.
Lessons and tips
- Suffering is a part of life. Kalanithi argues that suffering is not something to be avoided but rather something to be embraced and learned from.
- Compassion is essential. Kalanithi emphasizes the importance of compassion for both patients and their caregivers.
- Gratitude is a powerful force. Kalanithi was grateful for his time with his loved ones, the opportunity to practice medicine, and the simple gifts of life.
“When Breath Becomes Air” is best for readers interested in exploring profound existential and philosophical questions related to life, death, and the pursuit of meaning. It’s ideal for those who appreciate memoirs that offer a deep and introspective look into the human experience.
Whether you have a medical background or not, this book speaks to the universal themes of mortality, identity, love, and resilience. It’s for individuals who are open to reflecting on the fragility of life and the profound insights that can emerge from facing mortality with courage and grace. Paul Kalanithi’s memoir is a poignant and thought-provoking read that invites readers to contemplate the value of every breath we take and the meaning we find in the moments that truly matter.
Best-recommended books besides “When Breath Becomes Air”
These alternative books provide diverse perspectives on life, mortality, resilience, and the human experience. Whether you’re interested in personal growth, coping with adversity, or finding meaning in life’s challenges, each book offers valuable insights and emotional resonance to enrich your understanding of these profound themes.
“Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” by Atul Gawande
In “Being Mortal,” surgeon Atul Gawande examines the realities of aging, mortality, and end-of-life care. Drawing from his medical experiences, Gawande delves into the challenges of modern medicine in providing care that aligns with patients’ desires for dignity and autonomy. He explores the importance of discussing end-of-life wishes and the need to reimagine how we approach aging and dying.
Why we love it:
- Gain a deeper understanding of end-of-life care and its challenges.
- Explore the importance of meaningful conversations about mortality.
- Learn how to enhance your quality of life when your illness progresses and when it’s terminal.
“The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow
“The Last Lecture” is based on a lecture by computer science professor Randy Pausch. Pausch is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He shares life lessons, insights, and wisdom in a powerful lecture. The book expands on these ideas, offering readers a glimpse into Pausch’s philosophy on achieving childhood dreams, perseverance, and leaving a lasting legacy.
Why we love it:
- Be inspired by a moving lecture on life, dreams, and legacy.
- Gain insights into achieving personal and professional goals.
- Discover valuable life lessons from a perspective shaped by terminal illness.
“When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times” by Pema Chödrön
In “When Things Fall Apart,” Pema Chödrön, a renowned Buddhist teacher, guides navigating difficult and uncertain times. She explores the concept of groundlessness, the feeling of having the rug pulled out from under us and provides wisdom on how to find resilience, compassion, and inner strength amid life’s challenges. Chödrön’s teachings offer solace and guidance for those facing uncertainty and adversity.
Why we love it:
- Discover profound wisdom and advice for navigating difficult life circumstances.
- Learn how to cultivate inner strength and resilience in times of crisis.
- Explore the power of mindfulness and compassion in finding peace amidst chaos.
“Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy” by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
“Option B” by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant explores the journey of resilience in the face of grief and adversity. Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, shares her experience of losing her husband suddenly. Together with psychologist Adam Grant, she delves into the science of resilience. She provides insights on how to build resilience and find joy even after life’s most challenging setbacks.
Why we love it:
- Become more knowledgeable about resiliency and coping with loss.
- Learn practical strategies for building resilience in the face of adversity.
- Discover stories of hope and healing in the wake of profound loss.
“The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion
“The Year of Magical Thinking” is a memoir by Joan Didion that explores the grieving process after the sudden death of her husband, John Dunne. Didion reflects on her own experiences with grief and the tendency for people to use “magical thinking” to get through difficult times. The book provides a raw and honest portrayal of the complexities of mourning.
Why we love it:
- Gain insight into the grieving process and the human experience of loss.
- Explore the concept of “magical thinking” as a coping mechanism.
- Experience a moving and beautifully written memoir about love, loss, and resilience.
“The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying” by Nina Riggs
In “The Bright Hour,” Nina Riggs shares her journey living with terminal breast cancer. Riggs writes with humor and candor about her experiences, including her treatment, family life, and the fragility of existence. She explores the complexities of finding meaning and joy during a life-limiting illness.
Why we love it:
- Experience a poignant and honest memoir of living with terminal illness.
- Gain insights into finding beauty and meaning in the face of mortality.
- Be inspired by Riggs’ resilience and her ability to embrace life’s fleeting moments.
“The Art of Happiness” by Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler
“The Art of Happiness” is a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and psychiatrist Howard Cutler. In this book, they explore the nature of happiness, its sources, and practical ways to cultivate a happier life. The Dalai Lama’s wisdom and Cutler’s insights offer a holistic perspective on pursuing happiness.
Why we love it:
- Gain a deeper understanding of the nature of happiness and well-being.
- Learn practical strategies for cultivating happiness and inner peace.
- Discover the Dalai Lama’s teachings on finding joy and contentment in life.