Book Reviews

When Breath Becomes Air

I’m happy to say that since AP testing has finished for the year and my schedule became less demanding, I began to take up reading again. I came home from my last trip to the library with 8 books in tow, one of them being Paul Kalanithi’s memoir, When Breath Becomes Air. I almost don’t have the words to describe it, and in quoting some of my favorite passages, I realized I may as well just quote the whole book because every page will deeply move the reader. Paul Kalanithi was a well-read and well-lived man who sought to understand the meaning of human life through both literature and neuroscience. He obtained degrees in both areas at Stanford before moving on to Cambridge and finally Yale, always feeling that there was more for him to study. He then became a neurosurgeon and aspiring neuroscientist. Towards the end of his residency, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and in the memoir he focuses on his struggle with life’s meaning and his own mortality, now that he had to face it as a patient, instead of as a doctor. He set about to finally become a writer, and in doing so, share the process of facing one’s own mortality with integrity.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from When Breath Becomes Air:

“Though we had free will, we were also biological organisms – the brain was an organ, subject to all the laws of physics, too! Literature provided a rich account of human meaning; the brain, then, was the machinery that somehow enabled it.” (Kalanithi 30)

“What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain.” (Kalanithi 30-31)

“There must be a way, I thought, that the language of life as experienced – of passion, of hunger, of love – bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracts, and heartbeats.” (Kalanithi 39)

“But I couldn’t quite let go of the question: Where did biology, mortality, literature, and philosophy intersect?” (Kalanithi 41)

“Indeed, this is how 99 percent of people select their jobs: pay, work environment, hours. But that’s the point. Putting lifestyle first is how you find a job – not a calling.” (Kalanithi 69)

“While all doctors treat diseases, neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity: every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of our selves…” (Kalanithi 71)

“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” (Kalanithi 115)

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