famphoto+book jacket

Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

By Nicole Stanton

It is rare to find a book that I would recommend to absolutely everyone in my life, but upon finishing When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, I immediately emailed everyone from my grandmother to my ex-boyfriend with the subject line: MUST READ.

In case you haven’t been checking the New York Times Bestseller List, When Breath Becomes Air is a recently published memoir written by a neurosurgeon, writer, husband, and father in the last year of his life. His work is one of great bravery, completed during a fierce battle with terminal lung cancer. While cancer invaded his life as a neurosurgeon, he decided to confront death with words. His wife Dr. Lucy Kalanithi shepherded the book to publication following Paul’s death in March 2015. It has been in the #1 spot on the New York Times Nonfiction Bestseller List for eight weeks straight.

Personally, I am not often moved by fact-driven science and math. I have always felt that looking through a lens of fact is a disservice to the complications and nuance of human life. As an undergraduate, Kalanithi completed degrees in English literature and human biology. He writes, “I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain.” In his memoir, Kalanithi makes a beautiful argument for the place of both fact and creativity in the task of understanding the human condition.

Compelling, isn’t it? The idea that a neurosurgeon would turn to literature after learning that every breath has become even more precious.

Death is still one of the greatest mysteries of human life, one that Kalanithi explored in both his career as a neurosurgeon and as a patient battling cancer. Despite efforts to solve this great mystery of what comes after our time on earth, if anything at all, there is no real way of knowing. Science cradled Kalanithi’s understanding of the world up until he faced the imminence of Death. It is the humanities – writing and literature – that left space for his curiosity, for his wonderings and uncertainty.

Kalanithi confronts these topics with stunning prose, another reason why When Breath Becomes Air is a MUST READ for all humans.

We at Aspen Words look forward to Dr. Lucy Kalanithi’s visit to Aspen for our Summer Benefit on June 22. She will be featured in conversation with Ann Patchett. We hope you will join us!

Photo: Lucy Kalanithi and Paul Kalanithi with their daughter. (C) Suszi Lurie McFadden

Tags: ,

Categorised in: ,