Review: When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi put much of the “real living” of his life on hold for many years as he studied literature, medicine, surgery and the mind. Nearing the top of his ascent of an enviable professional mountaintop, he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and given only a little while longer to live. I happened to read this book while in a state of shock and mourning, following the devastating, upsetting American election, right around the time of a beloved deceased relative’s birthday, so you could say it was both the worst and best time to read this book. It’s a moving, thoughtful personal memoir that poses important questions about the meaning of life – how to find it, appreciate it, and create meaning for ourselves.

As he nears the end, Kalanithi explains plainly the folly of pretending there will always be a future, that more planning could possibly help. He describes living in the present, without ego, without plans and ambitions, thus:

Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.

A thoughtful, poetic book. A hard, beautiful book.

Book review: When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
5/5 stars.