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Book Review

‘When Breath Becomes Air’


Paul Kalanithi’s memoir, completed and published posthumously, is an eloquent and thoughtful reflection on what makes life meaningful, purposeful and worth living.

By Paul Kalanithi Random House Jan. 12, 2016 $25 256 pp

By Paul Kalanithi
Random House
Jan. 12, 2016
256 pp

In May 2013, Kalanithi, 36, was about to complete 10 years of rigorous training as a neurosurgery resident at Stanford and was preparing to entertain top offers in his profession and start a family with his wife, Lucy. He then learned, however, that he had terminal, inoperable lung cancer. His future shattered and not knowing how much time he had left to live, he had to decide a new course of action. “Who would I be, going forward, and for how long?” he wondered.

He turned to writing, putting his experience into words to help make sense of it. Once treatment afforded him greater functionality, he returned to operating, and he and Lucy decided to have a baby.

Gracefully and honestly, he gives us a meditation on what it is like to be both a doctor and a patient, encountering death from both perspectives. As a patient, he learned a lot about being a doctor that he never learned while practicing. He intellectually explores mortality, writing “…the angst of facing (it) has no remedy in probability” and that we should concern ourselves not with how long we have to live, but how we will live. Kalanithi died in March 2015, 22 months after his diagnosis. Writing at home, his body frail and collapsing, his mind engaged and very much alive, he left us with a beautiful, courageous illustration of what it means to live — and how to die. CV

Prep Iowa

Fay Jones was born with a love of literature, which was finely shored up throughout her early years by her parents and a beloved children’s librarian who wore the thickest glasses ever manufactured. Ms. Jones once won a coupon for a free ice cream cone after her suggestion for a name for the local Reading Is Fundamental mascot was selected. 

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