By Sahil Aggarwal
Publisher: Bodley Head (Part of Penguin Random House)
Nominations: Pulitzer Prize 2017, Audie Award
The title of the book ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ perfectly captures its essence
This book is the journey of a neurosurgeon in his own words. It’s a relatively short book, of around 230 pages, but with a very big heart. The text is divided into two parts, ‘In Perfect Health I Begin’ and ‘Cease Not till Death’. There is a Foreword by the renowned physician-author, Abraham Verghese and an Epilogue by Paul’s wife, Lucy. The title of the book captures the essence of it. It takes one from the feeling of being substantially everything (breath) to nothingness (air)!
Paul Kalanithi: A multifaceted and complex man
Kalanithi was always inclined to become a writer. He was also deeply interest in medical science . He acknowledged this sharing of interested explicitly. His education included an M.A. in English literature and a B.A. in Human Biology. Further, he earned an M.Phil in the History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine and did his residence training in Neurological Surgery. He strove to balance both his interests, till the last days of his life. Kalanithi died in March 2015 at the age of 37, 8 months after the birth of his daughter, Elizabeth.
What makes human life meaningful to go on living?
In first part of the book, Paul has tried to capture his journey from his childhood till the time he was about to complete his Neurosurgeon Residency programme. He writes about his personal and professional life, where he strives to find the answer for ‘What makes human life meaningful to go on living?’ . He deliberates his conscious choice to study literature and philosophy in order to understand what makes life meaningful and to study highly complex neuroscience in order to understand how an organ ( the brain) makes a person capable of even thinking about it. He recalls poets and his patients simultaneously to find the intersection point of biology, morality, literature and philosophy.
The second part of the book where Paul gets diagnosed with lung cancer makes it hard for the reader to flip the pages easily. This section talks about his severe trials and situations where different elements of his identity interact. From being heartbroken to the point of acceptance, life altering cancer makes Kalanithi and his family deal with the unforeseen. At one point, his treating physician tells him that the cancer is stable and might diminish over time. A few months before his departure from this earth, Kalanithi speaks profoundly about the “sated joy” that was ‘’an enormous thing’’ he experienced after taking his infant daughter in his hands.
Wife, Mother, Widow: A Woman’s Emotions
Lucy’s epilogue is poignant in more ways than one. Her words exhibit the crunch of the moments. She defines the moment when Paul says “I am ready” (to remove the breathing support) for the brave acceptance of death. Another incident which moved me, was when on Paul’s deathbed Lucy touched the infant’s cheeks with Paul’s and describes that Elizabeth would never suspect it was a ‘farewell moment’. The epilogue actually took my breath away.
Takeaways from ‘When Breath Becomes Air’: Dive Deep into the Pages to Discover
Though the book made me feel inadequate at certain points, this book is more about being alive. One would relate to this after reflecting on the decisions that author made in the face of death. With this review, I would like to give a heads up (and not give away) to the potential readers of this book i.e. look for the answer in each page that Paul got for himself in the quest of eternal question ‘What makes human life meaningful to go on living?’
Who should read this book?
Taking the genre of this book into consideration, I would give it a rating of 4 out of 5. This doesn’t mean that Kalanithi could have done a little better as an author, it just means that I might have lacked somewhere as a reader by 1 point. I would like to recommend this book to those people who have ever given a thought to their existence and tried to make some sense of it.
Similar books that may interest people: The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
Special Note: Bill Gates reviewed this book on his social media account as “This book left me in tears”
Fun fact: I ended up reading this book at around 2 a.m. on the 4th of July which coincidentally is birth day and time of Paul’s daughter. This overwhelmed me to send my warm wishes for her on Paul’s and Lucy’s social media accounts.
About the Author
Sahil Aggarwal is an MBA graduate with a specialisation in Human Capital Management. He describes himself as an immature ping pong player, voracious reader, avid writer, Urdu shayari lover, a street foodie by heart and a perpetual learner. He likes to read various genres of books such as philosophy, psychology, epistemology, biographies and of course fiction.
One of his favourite quotes is – “I wonder and gaze upon myself as an atom in the universe and the whole universe within the self.”