When Breath Becomes Air

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VP’s book reviews series opens with a mission and a memoir. The mission: read our way through as many of The 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years as we can. The memoir: Pulitzer Prize Finalist When Breath Becomes Air* by Paul Kalanithi (2016).

Posthumous conversations with dying brain surgeons are exceedingly rare…

Yet esteemed neuroscientist Paul Kalanithi grants readers precisely that. With the soul of a beloved brother and the wisdom of a hundred-year-old sage, Kalinithi’s memoir examines the meaning of life in the months preceding his death. Diagnosed with metastatic stage IV lung cancer at age thirty-four and writing feverishly in the final year of his life, he is unsparing in his intimacy, compelling readers to walk beside him as he asks what it means to be husband and father, doctor and patient, alive and yet dying.

From “the narthex and the nave” — from the center of his own experience and from the space beyond it — Kalinithi observes the practice of medicine, his own mortality and others, juxtaposing his viewpoints as physician and patient as his body grows weaker. A master storyteller, his writing is “rattling [and] heartbreaking,” novelistic in its tragedy.

Yet in his elegant prose, light and hope temper the anguish. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?” his wife asks. “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” he replies.

Paul Kalinithi died at age thirty-seven before finishing his memoir. The final chapters were written by his wife, and consistent with his dying wish, the completed work published posthumously. Knowing this in advance doesn’t make the abrupt loss of his voice any less jarring. We simply weren’t ready for this conversation to end.

Literature and medicine are uncommon pairings. We find them together in a small body of works by acclaimed writer-physicians such as William Carlos Williams and Abraham Verghese. And we find them in the extraordinary memoir of Paul Kalanithi.

*When Breath Becomes Air didn’t make the NY Times’s book critics top 50, but it moved us. Profoundly. So we took the ex officio, extra-NY Times liberty of including it anyway.

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