Life Reads | When Breath Becomes Air

My last read was Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. This #1 New York Times Bestseller, which has been named one of the best books of 2016 by The Washington Post, The New York Times, and NPR, chronicles Paul’s attempt to answer the question, What makes a life worth living? At the age of thirty-six, Paul was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer- a diagnosis he received while on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of education and training as a neurosurgeon. Through his memoir, he transforms from a naïve medical student, into a neurosurgeon treating dying patients, and finally a patient and new father who is forced to see the future he imagined with his family fade away. Paul died in March 2015, while working on this book, but his words and the words of his wife, Lucy Kalanithi, who wrote the Epilogue, will remain in your heart long after you’ve read the last page, as you too reflect on what makes a life virtuous and meaningful.

The prologue of When Breath Becomes Air begins with a CT scan indicating widely disseminated cancer, confirming Paul’s diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. Paul is immediately faced with the realization that the decades worth of hard work and the sacrifices he made within his relationship with his wife, Lucy, simply evaporate before him, as he looks to a future that is now largely unknown. The reader is then brought back in time as Paul describes his unlikely path to medical school- a path that many in his family had taken before, but Paul previously had no desire to pursue. However, the allure of neurosurgery- the type of medicine that requires perfection- was too great for Paul, and he found himself on that very path. He shares medical cases of patients he works with throughout his training, and grapples with illness and the death of others on a daily basis. The reader is also introduced to how much of a toll the demands of his residency and his ceaseless striving take on his marriage. Within Part II, Paul is required to transform from doctor to patient, where he is faced with his own mortality and is required to answer the question, “What makes a life worth living in the face of death?” When Breath Becomes Air ends unfinished due to Paul’s death, but the reader is granted the words of Paul’s wife, Lucy, where she chronicles his final moments, as she looks to find meaning in his death, and a new normal without Paul as she raises their little girl.

“…I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living,” Paul wrote. This is just one of the many eloquent responses Paul writes as he struggles to answer some of life’s most difficult questions.  

It has taken me a long time to adequately describe my thoughts and feelings after reading this book. To say it affected me on a profound level, are words that don’t seem sufficient in describing my experience with this read. In fact, I have struggled to pick up another non-fiction read since finishing the last page of When Breath Becomes Air, as I have wanted to carry the words of Paul and his wife, Lucy with me for a bit longer. Paul’s ability to write with such eloquence, vulnerability, and honesty as he is faced with his own mortality is nothing short of inspiring. As I read this book, I was forced to reflect on my own life, looking at my own purpose and what I feel makes a life worth living.

The book ending unfinished was a testament to the fact that life isn’t given to us wrapped neatly with a bow. Instead, it’s messy and complicated, and sometimes doesn’t make sense. I appreciate that Paul’s wife, Lucy didn’t attempt to finish his story but instead left it unfinished, as she simply describes, with just as much eloquence, her experience as a wife and witness to Paul’s experience. The words of both Paul and Lucy will make you cry, they will make you smile, and they will make you realize we are all in need of hope, as each one of us navigates this thing called life.

Have you read When Breath Becomes Air? What were your thoughts?

What’s next?



For my next read, I have chosen Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.

Feel free to read along with me or choose your own book and let me know what it is in the comments! You can also share your reads on Twitter or Instagram using #vcyogareads.

Happy reading, loves!