Review: When Breath Becomes Air


I wish I could brag that I can consistently start and finish a novel it in one sitting or a few days. In reality, I’m quite a slow reader; mulling over and rereading a single page several times as I progress is common for me. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy this process and I know my speed-reading ambitions are too idealistic, but, sometimes, it can feel unproductive.

The exception to this tendency was with When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi’s memoir chronicling his journey primarily as a neurosurgeon, but also as a father and husband, diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, in his pursuit to understand the meaning of his fading life. With the same standard of analysis as before, but a newfound efficiency, I devoured this 230-page book in a day, but still ponder it two months later.

So, why was it different? I picked up the novel purely for its attention-grabbing title (when does breath become air? Spoiler: death), but my interest grew through the narrative, bitterly ironic as a doctor who treats cancer patients suffers from cancer himself. Or maybe it was Paul’s love for literature underpinning the narrative—he first majored in English at Stanford as an undergraduate—reminding me of the value of the very act of reading I was performing. Perhaps it was my own affinity for the character; I, too, am fascinated by using capacities we learn in English to make any professional pursuit meaningful, especially in science—but more on that later. Most importantly, Paul’s poeticism has an air of fundamental importance, all the while individual, intimate and tempered with an acceptance of death.

This memoir leaves you feeling inadequate. I certainly did. Not only do we question whether we should pursue the challenging route of a major in English, minor in human biology, followed by a masters in literature and a masters in philosophy of science, then medical school, but also motives for this endeavour, described as “the call to protect life — and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul — was obvious in its sacredness.”

Some lightweight questions we are invited to consider: “If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?” and, if we spend time intellectually pondering the meaning of life, does that mean we are depriving ourselves from meaningful experiences? In Kalanithi’s answers, literature is the support providing “the richest material for moral reflection." The most prominent of many literary references in his memoir is a line from Beckett’s novel The Unnamable: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” The illogical nature of this mantra reflects the novel’s exploration of life, simultaneously irrational and the root of human resilience. Also, it is echoed by the structure of the novel itself, as a poignant and abrupt halt ends the memoir because Kalanithi passes away before it can be finished.

When Breath Becomes Air does not need another review to offer further praise in addition to what it has already received globally, nor is it the first novel of its kind, but I felt compelled to write one because I believe more students should take time to consider the value of the humanities, as demonstrated in Kalanithi’s memoir. While you don’t have to pursue four degrees in sciences and humanities, if you intend to study STEM, as many students increasingly choose, consider what literature can teach us about science. It is not only valuable for its own sake and for pleasure. In any endeavour, learning about human experience provides food for thought on how you are carrying out your own. The gulf between science and humanities may not be as large as you think. They can unite in morality.

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