What makes human life meaningful? What makes life worth living in the face of death? Such are the philosophical matters that Paul Kalanithi grappled with throughout his life, first as an English literature student, then as a neurosurgeon resident at Stanford and finally as a patient diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. 

When Breath Becomes Air is brave and vulnerable as Paul describes his life story deftly, going from being chief resident neurosurgeon at Stanford to having his life completely turned around when he becomes diagnosed with metastatic stage IV lung cancer at just 36 years old. Paul is relentless in his search of meaning as he struggles to define what is most important and what does time mean in the face of such a diagnosis. He writes beautifully with frankness and relatability, and none of the sensationalism that comes with books about dying. The poetry and the science mesh together and brings Paul’s words to life in an intimate way.

Grand illnesses are supposed to be life-clarifying. The way forward would seem obvious if only I knew how many months or years I had left.
Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family.
Tell me one year, I’d write a book.
Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases.
The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?

Paul Kalanithi

By the time I finished the book, I felt like I knew Paul. I knew enough to be able to mourn for him and appreciate just how huge a loss his death was, not just to his family, but all the unrealised potential of what could be had he lived. His wife, Lucy Kalanithi, wrote a moving epilogue that encapsulated the strength, vulnerability and grace that Paul had throughout his illness.

Even while terminally ill, Paul was fully alive; despite physical collapse, he remained vigorous, open, full of hope not for an unlikely cure but for days that were full of purpose and meaning.

Lucy Kalanithi

This is one of those books that sits with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Paul Kalanithi was a doctor and philosopher whose life was tragically cut short. But through his book, he was generous enough to share a part of himself and leave us with some of the profound insights he gained throughout his life. Highly recommend this book to anyone; whether or not you have an interest in medicine or philosophy.

You can’t ever reach perfection,
but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving
.

Paul Kalanithi

PS: Check out Paul Kalanithi’s 2014 and 2015 essays and an update on his wife, Lucy and how she’s been coping since his death in 2015.