Nonfiction That Lived Up To the Hype: When Breath Becomes Air

September 10, 2020 Uncategorized 16 ★★★★★

Nonfiction That Lived Up To the Hype: When Breath Becomes AirTitle: When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
Source: Gift
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads

Summary: This book was as beautiful, poignant, moving as everyone says.

This is one of the most moving, profound nonfiction books I’ve had the honor of reading. The fact that author Paul Kalanithi wrote this book while suffering from a cancer diagnosis he received at only 36 years old and that he passed away before publication adds a real poignancy to his memoir. The writing was truly beautiful. The author did an incredible job capturing the emotions and ethical quandaries of his job as neurosurgeon. The death of anyone so young will always come with a feeling of lost potential. Reading Paul’s memoir, it was hard not to mourn the compassionate doctor he would have been and long for the incredible medical memoirs he might have produced at the end of his career.

The author had clearly already done a lot of thinking about life, death, and what makes life worth living, even prior to his diagnosis. His insight, sharpened by the difficult decisions he had to make for his own treatment, challenged me to think about what matters in my own life. The author described several times in his life when reading got him through. He also included many quotes from books he loved that formed a powerful dialogue with his own thoughts on life and mortality. It was clear that reading meant a lot to him. When he very briefly mentioned that he was too exhausted to even consider reading during chemo, that small detail particularly struck me. I imagine reading was central to his self conception and that being unable to do so must have been a tough sacrifice to make for more time.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this book made me feel weepy the whole time I was reading it. I’d recommend picking it up when you feel up to a book that will make you cry and that will also make you consider your own mortality.  I hesitate to label this book or any other as one that will change my life. I won’t be doing anything different in my day-to-day because of reading this. However, it will stick with me and it’s certainly a book that shifted my thinking in subtle ways. I thought about the life from a new perspective while reading this book.

I know I had more I wanted to say about this book. I know I’m not doing it justice. All I can do is add my voice to the chorus, telling you this is beautiful, profound, moving. I certainly won’t be the first to be particularly recommend this to readers who loved The Emperor of All Maladies. The compassionate discussion of patients with frightening medical concerns was common to both. However, in a cover blurb, Ann Patchett also described this as a ‘universal donor’, a book she’d recommend to anyone. I feel the same way.

16 Responses to “Nonfiction That Lived Up To the Hype: When Breath Becomes Air”

  1. Angela

    This was a beautiful but such a difficult read. I can’t imagine being that thoughtful and coherent when facing such a tragic situation. The section his wife wrote had me in tears.

    • DoingDewey

      No, I can’t imagine having the will (or the talent) to write something like this at such a difficult time either! Honestly, I was tearing up throughout. Definitely a tough read.
      DoingDewey recently posted…Nonfiction FridayMy Profile

    • DoingDewey

      I loved that blurb from Patchett! Appropriate and very clever.

      I always have a hard time making myself pick up books on tough topics, even if they get rave recommendations. This one was worth it though and I do also recommend giving it a try when you’re up to it 🙂
      DoingDewey recently posted…Nonfiction FridayMy Profile

  2. Lory

    I WILL read this someday. It seems to have become an instant classic. Good to be prepared for the tough topic though.

    • DoingDewey

      I find that I have to space books like this out and read them when I’m up to them. I do think you’re likely to enjoy this one when you get to picking it up 🙂

    • DoingDewey

      You are correct! I enjoyed Being Mortal a lot and have even been thinking of re-reading it, because I didn’t follow any of his suggestions about how to get your own affairs in order.

    • DoingDewey

      Same! I guess I’d use the word enjoy, at least in this case, although it does a feel like a slightly strange fit. But even though this =was sad and moving, I enjoyed that it made me think and I enjoyed how beautiful the writing was.

  3. Brona

    Glad you finally read this and I agree with Meredith, if you haven’t already read Being Mortal, then it should be next, when you’re feeling strong enough – it was a box of tissues book too.

    I came away from this book with a book wishlist – Kalanithi was a very well-read man.
    Brona recently posted…The Fire This Time | Jesmyn Ward #NonFictionMy Profile

    • DoingDewey

      I have read and really enjoyed Being Mortal, so you’re both right! I didn’t make a note of the books Kalanithi mentioned, but I did admire how much he drew on literature during tough times in his life.

  4. Rennie

    I somehow missed your review of this the first time around so I’m glad you linked to it in your nonfiction guide. I just finished this this week. It was in my neighborhood’s Little Free Library and I decided to give it a try even though I’d avoided it before. It just seemed so sad and upsetting and I didn’t want to immerse in that. But I’ve really enjoyed medical-related nonfiction lately and in these uncertain, scary times it seemed worth being reminded of bigger things in life. This was just perfect for that. I cried a lot but I appreciated it so much. I’m in awe that he even managed to write something so profound and beautiful and moving while undergoing treatment. I’m exhausted on an ordinary day and yet he managed to create this, it’s just amazing. Beautiful review!

    • DoingDewey

      I had a hard time picking it up, knowing it would be a tough, emotional read. I cried quite a bit too, but I also really loved it. It is incredible he was able to write this. It seems he had incredible talent in a lot of ways.

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