When Breath Becomes Air

Last night I finished reading Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air (Random House, 2016). It is the most moving book I’ve read in a decade.

Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon in his thirties when he was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer. He made two decisions: first, to write a book about his confrontation with and ultimate defeat by death; and second, to become a father. He did both.

He was a remarkable man in several senses. He was strong, dedicated, hard-working, and loving. But he was also profoundly educated in the arts and literature as well as being a master in his field. When Breath Becomes Air is beautifully written and organized, shaped with a sure hand and marked by courage and a search for meaning.

I concede that I was so taken with the book for two reasons divorced from the text. First, I’m still recovering from lung cancer myself—I was close to death. Second, I read the book over Memorial Day weekend when thoughts of death are foremost.

We Americans are odd in our cultural distancing of both sex and death. I discovered as a young man that other cultures are much more open and accepting than we are. I earnestly hope that Kalanithi’s work will help us to learn to perceive death as part of life. As for sex . . . we’ll see.

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