• Bochra Boudarka

Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This book is about life and it’s ending.


At the age of thirty-six, Paul Kalanithi is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer just as he is about to complete his surgical residency as a neurosurgeon. He saw both sides of the medical experience, from the perspective of a neurosurgery resident witnessing life defining moments everyday and from that of a patient with terminal lung cancer wondering how to make the most of the time he has left. He chose to document his experiences until the end of his accomplished life; this book was eventually published posthumously.


Death is the one absolute in life; it lies ahead for all of us, and for many, life is lived with a ‘passivity towards death’. It happens to everyone, and many don’t face their mortality unless they have to. This book forces you to face it time and time again. But it also serves as a reminder that those around you; their love and affection and care, can balance the pain and suffering.


“Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.”

Kalanithi’s writing is incredibly direct and searingly honest. His passion for literature is evident in the lyricism of his wording, making When Breath Becomes Air an objective yet captivating read. He is a man of intense compassion, something that is evident in his work. It wasn’t something he showed the reader in an arrogant or superior way, rather it was embedded in the experiences he recalled, his insights and empathy towards others.


As he thinks about his future, he struggles to decide on how to fill the little time he has left. Should he continue his work as a neurosurgeon, a field he loves and feels so accomplished in? One that gave him the opportunity to touch and help so many lives. Should he pursue a new career in writing? What obligations does he have towards his wife, family and friends? What did he accomplish of value? Was there more he could do? "At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living." His focus is to make what remains of his life meaningful.


There were many difficult moments and painful passages, ones made harder, perhaps, if you have experienced the loss of a loved one to cancer. Ultimately, it is our deeds and words and the memories in which we appear that are permanent. Life is transient, but the way we treat others and forge relationships is how we exist long after we are gone. Kalanithi’s wife’s moving epilogue of his unfinished autobiography is a testimony to this.


By Bochra Boudarka