When Breath Becomes Air

by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air CoverWhen I spent this past holiday season down in Florida, I decided I should bring some light reading to help me pass the time. (My family was kind enough to respect my need to bask in the sunlight in peace for sizeable chunks, and I greatly thank them for it.) In hindsight, I find it at least a little amusing as to what constitutes “light” reading in my mind these days: a look at the times in history that the concept of progress destroyed civilizations with the idea that we can learn from these lessons before we destroy our modern society (Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress), an analysis of contemporary love and dating culture around the globe (Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance), and a neurosurgeon’s ideas of morality and mortality following his terminal cancer diagnosis (Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air).

Despite the knowledge that this is probably the wrong way to start this review off proper, I quite honestly found When Breath Becomes Air a bit disappointing, and not because it wasn’t great, but because it was merely great. I just went into this one with my expectations much, much, much too high, and I can’t really explain why. I mean, the blurbs were all glowing, but what book doesn’t have wonderful blurbs these days? It was a bestseller for countless weeks before I managed to wander across a cheap enough copy to purchase for myself, but past experience taught me that a book’s popularity won’t be indicative of my enjoyment. I think that my other past experiences with similar, exceptional books were what did it this time around––books dealing with failing health and other traumatic experiences at the end of one’s life, like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Nocturne, and Mortality.

I think that my main issue with When Breath Becomes Air is that Kalanithi’s writing style isn’t always compelling to me. Numerous passages involve dry description and recollections of events that didn’t effectively bring out the heart and emotion of the situations he found himself within. But he finds it. The author presents his life surrounded by death with honesty and understanding, thrusting himself into the minds of our best thinkers (through their literature) and the unforgiving world of neurosurgery to help his understanding of our short time here. He offers a unique perspective of how quickly life can steal away your future, who you become when your life irrevocably changes, and what makes life, even a painful, almost unbearable daily existence, worth living nonetheless.

So, even though I somehow found myself disappointed with what I thought would be something I’d want to revisit again and again, something that would change and change me with each reading, When Breath Becomes Air was great. Kalanithi shows that you can go through both life and death with grace, wisdom, and integrity.