Review: “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi; Memoir; 4.5 stars on Amazon; 5 stars in my heart.

when breath becomes air

So I actually finished this book a couple months ago, and didn’t blog about it because I was blog-less at the time. But now I’m not blog-less, and I have to write about it, and here are the main reasons why:

  1. It just surpassed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as the best memoir I’ve ever read. (Which is a big deal, anyways, but especially because of how much I love Maya and the fact that that book held the number-one-memoir-spot for me for like 10 years.)
  2. It’s the first book I’ve ever read that actually changed my life.
  3. I feel like I owe it to Paul to get anyone else I can to read his story. And no, I don’t know Paul any more than anyone else who’s read this book. But what kind of (more terrible) world would we live in if people only did good things for people they actually know?

Alright, so, same rules apply as the rules that will apply for all book reviews I do on Things I’m Thinking (unless otherwise noted): No spoilers, opinions are my own, won’t talk about books I actually hated and lie just to passive aggressively bash the author or lie and say I liked it or lie at all because what kind of way is that to start a relationship??

Believe it or not, it’s not a spoiler to let you know that Paul ends up dying – read anything about the book and you’ll learn that much. It’s also not a spoiler to let you know why Paul ends up dying – he gets his official terminal cancer diagnosis pretty immediately when the book starts, and kind of knows it’s coming even sooner than that because he’s about to graduate as a neurosurgeon and he’s pretty clear about what all his symptoms should mean, even though they also shouldn’t. He’s 36 years old and all the things he spent his life working for are about to finally meld together into such gorgeous success and so maybe it’s not cancer because he’s too young and that’s not how life happens.

He wasn’t too young and that is how life can happen.

That’s my big takeaway – my tagline for people like me who feel like adults but in baby-form still. Baby-form adults aren’t exempt from stories like Paul’s. We aren’t too young and this really is how life can happen. The greater irony of this realization on my part was that I started When Breath Becomes Air the night before one of my best friends let me know she had had emergency brain surgery and now they were testing the tumor to confirm if it was what they thought it was: cancer. This best friend of mine is a baby-form adult, just like me. 28 years old. A poster child for my “Way too young and this isn’t how life works” very scientific rationale.

When she told me the day after I started this book that all of this was happening, I made a very logical conclusion that there was no way in hell I was finishing this book. Not right now, at least. After she finished treatment and we were on the other side of all of this, maybe. MAYBE. Sort of maybe but probably not.

I did finish it, though. Sometimes humans do things that we don’t understand and I don’t understand why I picked this book back up after I pretty much used my pointer fingers to throw up a make-shift cross and swore against it. But I did. And I am really glad I did because this, I think, is the most important part:

When Breath Becomes Air is not a book about dying. When Breath Becomes Air is a book about living.

I’m really grateful I read this when I was still a baby-form adult and the concept of “living” could still be adjusted in my mind. I made my dad read this book when I was finished, and when I told him it changed my life, he was psyched to read it but hesitant about expecting it to actually change his because he’s past his phase of baby-form adulting. Then he read it in two days and we talked about it for over an hour and then he coerced his best friend into reading it, and my mom read it, too. And maybe it didn’t technically “change his life,” but it mattered to him a lot, and if there is no end goal besides to just start reading more books that matter to us then I think that’s a pretty decent end goal to have.

I don’t believe in perfect people (because they’re fake), but Paul seems to come very, very close to perfect. He is smart enough to be one of the most promising almost-neurosurgeons ever, and he also storytells so beautifully that it hurts. As a writer, I can vouch for the fact that that’s not supposed to happen. You’re told your whole life that it’s totally fine that science is hard for you because you are a writer. Don’t worry about it! Left-brain/right-brain shit; these are facts! But Paul has left-brain and right-brain and front-brain and back-brain and it creates this amazingly likable person who’s navigating this unbelievable situation in such an honest way. And you learn stuff. A lot of stuff. Not just about him but, hopefully, about you. And when it ends, it matters.

So I really, really recommend this book, not just in Paul’s memory but in honor of all of our rights to read things that will matter to us, because I believe that this will matter to you, too. And if you’re like me, you’ll cry like a baby because of it, but you’ll be better and stronger overall. And you deserve that. (Trust me.)


Xo Charlene

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