This review originally appeared on WorldOfJoel.com
If you read the summary of When Breath Becomes Air you know what you're getting yourself into. It's a novel written by a neurosurgeon/neuroscientist who was diagnosed and passed away of lung cancer before the age of 40. And even knowing that, this novel is a beautiful view into one mans life journey.
The novel opens up learning about Paul Kalanithi, his life, his childhood, and his passion for both literature and medicine. To put it simply the man was brilliant both with his words and his hands. The way in which he was able to write this novel all the while going through rigorous chemotherapy treatments and knowing that his days were numbered is truly remarkable. By far the most fascinating and insightful part of When Breath Becomes Air (I love that title by the way) is the dichotomy between his time as a doctor and becoming the patient.
Paul's works his way to the top of the medical profession only to find himself abruptly derailed into a battle with terminal lung cancer. His perspectives on proper patient care from both angles was fascinating. I loved hearing how as a doctor he would be extremely vague with life expectancy and yet as a patient he craved some sort of plan and some sort of idea of how much time had remaining. Something to not only give his life meaning but also perspective. He like anyone in his situation struggled with figuring out what to do with his life post-diagnosis. As he goes back to being a surgeon it was fascinating to see how his mood changed towards his career.
And as you would expect the book sadly and unfortunately comes to a halting conclusion, much like his life. His wife finished When Breath Becomes Air with an extraordinary epilog that had me crying my eyes out as I drove home from work. Paul doesn't pretend to be perfect. He doesn't pretend to be brave, or that there was anything fair about this. However, what he wrote which is nothing short of brilliant was a memorable and beautiful summation of an extraordinary man's life. Even if you don't enjoy the lengthy discussions on his surgeries, or time in the hospital, you can at least glean the foreboding reminder that life is fleeting and whether you have a year or fifty years, that life is beautiful and with each breath becomes air.
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