Book Review: “When Breath Becomes Air” (five out of five stars)

When Breath Becomes Air

“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi is a not only stunningly well-written and very thought provoking, but it also really makes one reflect on the meaning and purpose of our lives.

Dr. Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon and a writer. He was born in New York and his family moved to Kingman, Arizona, when he was 10 years old. He graduated from high school as valedictorian. He pursued higher education and obtained two Bachelor’s Degrees (English Literature and Biology) from Stanford, a Maters Degree in English Literature from Stanford, an MPhil in History and Philosophy from Cambridge, and an MD from Yale. He was just completing his residency for neurosurgery, and was also completing a fellowship in neuroscience, when he was diagnosed with cancer. He died 22 months later, and, in the period between his diagnosis and his death, he wrote this book.

The book has two parts – his medical career prior to his diagnosis, and his life after his diagnosis. In the first part he shares both the positives and the challenges of pursuing the field of neurosurgery. It is very openly written, and his description of the learning process – from classroom learning to doing actual neurosurgery – is fairly detailed and provides a rare insight for laypersons into this highly complex field.

In the second half, the doctor is now a patient. It is tough to read this second part (and the epilogue) as the author’s condition worsens. The author reflects on multiple topics in this section including his decision to become a father at this time, religion and whether or not God exists, and human relationships. However, through his introspection during this period, and his openly sharing his experiences, he provides us with important thoughts on the meaning and purpose of our lives – who we are, what we do, why we do what we do, and what will provide us with fulfillment.

Paul Kalanithi - picture

This book is an amazing book for three reasons. The first is the writing – the author is a truly gifted and powerful writer, which makes his writing all the more impactful. The second is the person – he is multi-talented, thoughtful, and insightful – and he writes with a surprising calmness despite his terminal illness. The third reason is that it will most likely have some level of impact on you and your life as you learn from the author’s experience and message.

The author passed away while writing this book – nevertheless, it does feel like a complete book and not a partially written book. There is an epilogue written by his wife Lucy which describes what happened after the main text of the book finishes.

Paul Kalanithi and family

Those who are interested in the field of neurosurgery will especially like this book since, as noted above, a lot of the initial focus is on this topic. However, even for someone not interested in this field, I’d still highly recommend this book because it will make one think and self-reflect, and – who knows – perhaps help to provide some guidance with regards to how we should live our lives.

(further information about Paul Kalanithi is available at

Rating: five out of five stars




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