Book Club: Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air

What do you do when you’re told to confront your own death?
IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY
IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

University is a place where dreamers live. People are aspiring to become doctors, professors, famous writers, influencers, and teachers. They are striving to do amazing things, and Dr. Paul Kalanithi is the epitome of what any university student dreams of becoming. He was a brilliant, Ivy League-educated neurosurgeon, who also happens to be the author of the most incredible book I have ever read, When Breath Becomes Air.

Kalanithi’s main question throughout the book is: what gives life meaning? As an undergraduate student at Stanford University, Kalanithi was deeply intrigued by human meaning and the functions of the brain. Throughout the book, readers see Kalanithi analyzing this question throughout the many stages of his life. He earned his bachelor’s degree in human biology and English to help to satisfy some of his questions.

Over the course of the book, Kalanithi describes how his quest to discover human meaning, often conflicted with his desire to form human relationships, gave his life meaning. He additionally comments on his decision to choose to experience philosophical ‘meaning’ as opposed to studying ‘meaning’ at university. In his fourth year of undergraduate studies, after visiting a facility for people who have suffered severe brain injuries, Kalanithi realized that our brains make life meaningful and allow us to form meaningful relationships.

Kalanithi proceeded to obtain a master’s degree in English literature, and through this discovered that English was not where he belonged. He discovered that he wanted to pursue medicine to truly experience the meaning of life. During the interim period, he obtained a master’s in history and philosophy of medicine from Cambridge University, which helped him to once again confirm that he wanted to experience the meaning of life, not just study it.

The Yale School of Medicine allowed Kalanithi to bridge the gaps between meaning, life, and death. Kalanithi chose to specialize in neurosurgery because that’s where these big questions meet. Neurosurgeons in particular deal with the identity of their patients, and aid them in answering the question of what makes life meaningful enough to go on living.

The final part of the book focuses on finding meaning and identity after receiving a terminal illness diagnosis. It also delves into the transition of going from doctor to patient. Kalanithi had to decide what will give his remaining time on earth meaning, and he decided that practicing as a neurosurgeon, having a child, and writing a book would add the most meaning to his life. In deciding whether or not to have a child, his wife, Lucy, asked him, “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?” to which Kalanithi poetically replied, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?”

The book ends with Lucy, now a widow, detailing the final months of his life and how his main priority during this time was maintaining mental acuity to ensure he did not lose meaning in life. Her writing style is raw, so be prepared to shed some tears.

If you’d like a poetic, heart-wrenching read that inspires you to search for more meaning in your life, I’d highly recommend this book. Know that in reading this, you are carrying on Kalanithi’s voice and ideas, and will have the honour of looking into a dreamer’s mind.

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