...written as he faced a terminal cancer diagnosis, is inherently sad. But it’s an emotional investment well worth making: a moving and thoughtful memoir of family, medicine and literature. It is, despite its grim undertone, accidentally inspiring.
Part of this book’s tremendous impact comes from the obvious fact that its author was such a brilliant polymath. And part comes from the way he conveys what happened to him — passionately working and striving, deferring gratification, waiting to live, learning to die — so well. None of it is maudlin. Nothing is exaggerated.
Kalanithi, who died on March 9, 2015, at the age of 37, delivers his chronicle in austere, beautiful prose. The book brims with insightful reflections on mortality that are especially poignant coming from a trained physician familiar with what lies ahead.
The power of this book lies in its eloquent insistence that we are all confronting our mortality every day, whether we know it or not. The real question we face, Kalanithi writes, is not how long, but rather how, we will live – and the answer does not appear in any medical textbook.
To spend a few hours in the company of a narrator like Kalanithi, such an urgent, pulsing presence on the page, you can hardly believe he is gone ... Like any memoir of terminal illness, it is saturated with the author’s awareness that this is it, his last chance to make himself known to those he loves and those who will only ever experience him on the page ... Kalanithi makes his narrative of development fresh for readers of all backgrounds, in part by recounting discoveries of the philosophical complexities woven into the practice of medicine ... Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, Paul’s widow, has contributed a devastating epilogue to When Breath Becomes Air ... When Breath Becomes Air does what all great literature does: it allows a man whose life belongs to the past to endure.
We ache for this man, we hurt for this marriage, we cry when this couple decides that yes, a child, their child, will be born; their daughter, Cady, will carry Kalanithi forward in the ways that children do. We think of all the patients who benefited from Kalanithi's sheer humanity (not to mention those admirable surgical skills) and all those who will never have the honor of having him stand by their bedside.
...the real gift of this book is the opportunity to reflect on the considerations and choices of one unusually thoughtful individual about how to use his limited time to its best advantage, for him and his family ... [an] unforgettable memoir destined to become a classic.
Kalanithi’s writing is urgent, and the most polished and poetic parts of the book are adapted from the few essays he published; the rest, if a little rougher around the edges, is suffused with intelligence and evidence of a rich soul.