My reading of Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air came on the heels of reading a book that was, as far as my own reading experience goes, its polar opposite (Good on Paper): I wanted to love Cantor’s book, but couldn’t; I wanted to hate Kalanithi’s book, but found myself in tears. When Breath Becomes Air could have been many terrible (for this reader) things: a treacly memoir, a self-help book or the inevitably leaden inspirational memoir. Instead I discovered a mind and voice that, months later, I find myself still, in my own small way, considering and mourning.
I’m not up to explicating all the reasons why Kalanithi’s book did what so many others can’t. I’m not even sure I could if I tried. Kalanithi was obviously highly intelligent and driven, a man who couldn’t reconcile his education in English literature with his scientific interests until he became a doctor in an attempt to really experience life. He tells his story in clear prose of sometimes brutal honesty. He was already, by any standard, accomplished and while he certainly would have become even more so had he not been cut-down by cancer before he was 40, there’s no hint in the book that Kalanithi felt he would have become one of our greatest physicians, researchers or writers. That he tells, with humility and grace, what he can of his permanently unfinished story in a way that honors his readers as much as himself is an achievement.
I highly recommend this book, particularly to those who have been resisting it because of the combination of incessant press and the external hallmarks of being Yet Another Self-Help Book. However, I also recommend skipping both Abraham Verghese’s introduction and, sadly, Kalanithi’s wife’s epilogue; the former is terribly written, the second attempts to add some resolution that feels artificial. Both are unnecessary.