By Paul Kalanithi Random House Audio, 2016 Review by Christian Perring on May 10th 2016
Kalanithi's memoir of his career as a student of literature and philosophy and as a neuroscientist neurosurgeon has gained a lot of attention. Just when he is on the verge of professional success when he gets a diagnosis of cancer. He and his wife plan what to do -- they had planned to have a family, but will they have time to do that now? Kalanithi reflects on his experience in his undergraduate and graduate days, and his decision to switch from a theoretical approach to a medical approach. We hear about his experience treating patients and getting more used to seeing death. He comes to understand how illness changes the life of a patient and their family. He considers what can make life meaningful when facing death, and eventually goes back to the Christianity he was brought up with.
When Breath Becomes Air is poignant as a reflection on a short life and the role of philosophy of faith in facing death. Kalanithi is well placed with his rich training to address these issues, and he has to be thoughtful in order to be a good doctor to his patients with brain disorders. He is from India and this also means he has to address cultural differences. But it is not so much any particular insight that makes this book worth reading, but the passion and grace he conveys with his writing. We know from the start that his story ends with his death, and this of course adds to the sadness of his words. But ultimately this is an uplifting book, finished off with a lovely account of Kalanithi's final days and the time after his death by his wife, Lucy Kalanithi.
The performance of the unabridged audiobook by Sunil Malhotra and Cassandra Campbell is excellent, capturing the enthusiasms, sadness and acceptance of both husband and wife, without going to excess.