A Review of When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.
Minor spoilers for When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.
One day Paul Kalanithi was a doctor, treating dying patients, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. Although the tragedy in When Breath Becomes Air presents itself from the very first page, the entire book, although infused with death, was not tragic.
"I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurosurgical resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own."
(pg 1., prologue, When Breath Becomes Air.)
Since his early 20s, Kalanithi grappled with the meaning of life, and the connection between literature, biology and the mind. This led him to switch his studies from literature to medical school. As a doctor-in-training, Kalanithi was able to witness life and death on the frontlines. His struggles are real, moral and insightful. Unfortunately, it was not until Kalanithi was a patient that he was able to look at this puzzling question from another angle. "Wouldn't a terminal illness be the perfect gift,” Kalanithi used to joke. “To this young man who hoped to grasp mortality in a kind of intellectual sense?"
Going into the book, I had expected tragedy. Before even reading the first page, I knew Paul Kalanithi would not survive — he died six years ago. I watched as the brilliant doctor learn to grapple his life as a patient, and figure out what was his life’s true purpose. “Tell me three months,” he wrote, “I’d just spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d have a plan (write that book). Give me 10 years, I’d get back to treating diseases.”
He remarks that being diagnosed with cancer, in a way, changed nothing. He was going to die, yes, but still, he didn’t know when.
In an interview with Book of the Month, Lucy Kalanithi, Paul’s wife, said: “There was a headline after Paul died, his death got covered in a few local news pieces. One of them said, Stanford Neurosurgeon Succumbs to Cancer I was like, I don't think Paul succumbed. He died, but I don't think he succumbed.”
This quote reiterates this: death does not equal tragedy. Yes, Paul Kalanithi died. Yes, he should have lived. But, when I think about the last pages of the book, as Kalanithi faced his death, and the heart-breaking epilogue by his wife, I don’t think of tragedy.
Paul Kalanithi’s story was eye-opening, enlightening, inspiring, but not tragic. When I went into this book, I expected death, and sadness and hopelessness but instead I got a beautiful story, raw and filled with emotions. In the end, cancer took the best of him, but his death did more than just bad. “I love Paul forever,” Lucy Kalanithi expresses in an interview with Stanford Medicine. “In that first year, there was a sadness and loneliness and anxiety that I didn’t expect. Doing a book tour for Paul was extremely helpful because people asked me about him a lot. Instead of treating me with kid gloves, people would just walk up and say, “I read your husband’s book. Here’s what I think.” It was this real entrée into feeling less alone. Now, I feel like that pain has lifted a lot, but I love Paul exactly the same amount.
Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, once said, “For a work to be tragic, it need not have a tragic ending.”
When Breath Becomes Air is a contemporary reincarnate of Aristotle’s concept, showing how tragedy does not need to define a character. Despite Paul’s death, Lucy Kalanithi, six years later, has found love and peace within her life, while loving Paul just the same.
first ventured into the world of writing with her sister. Since then, she has gone to explore different genres and styles: short fiction, literary fiction and most recently, non-fiction. When she’s not writing she can be found spending time with family, going on walks, or watching the latest grammar videos. Follow her on Instagram @mashalashfaqofficial.