Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

A memoir so human, deep, and breath-taking.

Holding a delicate small figure in his hands, he brings the new human close to his chest. As her eyes slowly opened up to view the world, Paul knew that this was why he pursued his job as a neurosurgeon: to discover the meaning of life. For him, the child was a valuable being—someone’s first daughter, cousin, and grand-daughter.


An Indian American neurosurgeon and writer, Paul Kalanithi graduated from Stanford University and earned a Bachelor and Master in both literature and human biology, two rather contrasting subjects. After earning his degree, he took philosophy at Cambridge University wherein he became curious about what life is. To discover answers to his questions, Kalanithi joined a medical team at Yale university as he believed that neurology—the subject that deals with the birth and science behind human knowledge—would help him. After ceaselessly working in the operation room and explaining to the patients the reason for the failure of a surgery in the white beds, Kalanithi himself ended up lying on the same patient’s bed, feeling hopeless and despair due to a terminal cancer. In an effort to share his experience as a doctor and then a patient, Kalanithi wrote a memoir even till his death in March 2015.



“Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

The novel is divided into two parts, the first about his experience as a doctor and the latter as a patient. What fascinated me most is the former section in which he shares his initial drive to undertake the job of a doctor. Students these days, especially Koreans, are sensitive to the divide between liberal arts and STEM for both the students and parents hold misconceptions on the two areas. Take KIS students for instance: many of my friends who claim to be more on the STEM side set their entire high school courses and extracurriculars solely to those pertaining subjects, such as biology or maths. Even I, as a student who is still struggling to discover her career, have always believed that I should belong to english or maths. As I heard great praises from my teachers and peers on my writing, I expected that liberal arts was the path for me, urging me to preclude any possibility of learning maths or science. However, after reading When Breath Becomes Air, I began to open up the doors to both areas because they complement one another. It fascinated me how Kalanithi could pursue both literature and human biology as they are rather disparate areas that seem odd to be studied together. Nevertheless, his point of view on how they led him to become a more mature and knowledgeable person revolutionized the divide between English and science; Kalanithi claims that though “literature provided the richest material for moral reflection,” he felt that it was “missing the messiness and weight of real human life,” which explains why he took on neurology.


Another beautiful part of this novel is how the author writes his experiences in a clear voice that really speaks to the audience. I used to have a negative view on doctors as I felt as if they were mostly corrupt due to the media depiction of them today. But he intertwines illuminating lines when explaining about the surgeries he conducted that compel the readers to view doctors as utterly humane people who experience the value of life, making me even further empathize with my own father who is a doctor as well.

“The physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.”

Despite how impressive and alluring the novel is, there were some aspects of the novel that I was disappointed with, including the epilogue and the interjections of famous lines. Though numerous fans find the epilogue from Kalanithi’s wife as the apex of the novel that made them weep, I found the epilogue rather dry compared to the author’s strong voice. As the ending of the memoir was a potent saying from the author to his daughter, I expected that the novel would end there, leaving the readers with tears and excitement. However, when I read the epilogue afterwards, it did not make me feel that heart-warming feel I got from Kalanithi’s words since his writing is stronger than that of his wife. Another part of the memoir that I disliked was how the author includes famous saying from other famous authors. Although I was able to grasp some of the quotes, there were many that I was not able to comprehend, digressing the novel away from me.


Nevertheless, When Breath Becomes Air is a heartfelt novel that I believe will resonate with me for a long time as it has taught me not only the value of life but also what it means to be a knowledgeable, humane person. If students are more aware that there is no set formula of courses to be prosperous in the future, they will become more successful in the future and enjoy their learning. After all, Kalanithi has proven to us that regardless of whether the subject you undertake is on the STEM or liberal arts side, if you have the passion and will to take value from the things you do, you will be content with your work and life.

—Sarah Se-Jung Oh (’19)

Featured Image:     kalanithi/

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