Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi


When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air
Published by Random House in 2016

My Rating: ★★☆☆☆

2 “Well, this is awkward” stars…

Before anything, I’d like to preface this review with some context. Around the time that I picked this up, one of my family members had been living with cancer for about a year. Like many people, I thought it was something that only happened in the movies – I didn’t think it would happen to me. So I didn’t know how to make sense of the experience. I was feeling confused, trapped, and terrified, and I wanted to read something that would help me understand what I was going through. It was around this time that I stumbled on Mr. Kalanithi’s memoir, and at the time I thought it was extremely timely for me.

Unfortunately, while I respect the effort that Mr. Kalanithi put into this work, and while I deeply empathise with his family for their loss, I can’t bring myself to say that I liked this book, or that it resonated with my family’s experience. This is one of those times where I’m not sure if I read the same book as everyone else. Instead of striking me as being emotional and profound, this book struck me as dry and pretentious. I felt like I was listening to someone detailing his accomplishments and lofty ideals in a bid to prove to other people that he’s worthy of being remembered after his death.

For example, at the beginning of the memoir, we learn that Mr. Kalanithi has had a fairly privileged life. He grew up reading all the classics under the eye of an intelligent and well-read mother with great ambitions for her children. He’s gone to a string of Ivy League schools – Stanford, Cambridge, and Yale – and earned degrees in literature and philosophy. However, he decided to go to medicine afterwards, because it was only through practicing medicine that he could “pursue a serious biological philosophy” (p. 43) and give up “[puny] moral speculation” in favor of “moral action”. Further along, he writes, “I was pursuing medicine to bear witness to the twinned mysteries of death, its experiential and biological manifestations: at once deeply personal and utterly impersonal” (p. 53).

Such abstractions have their place in philosophical tracts, but not in memoirs. If there are any abstractions at all, like the extracts quoted above, I would expect them to be hard-earned and grounded in the author’s own experience. But because of the paucity of intimate detail in the renderings of his experiences, these abstractions came across as precisely just ‘puny moral speculation’ – just empty talk about his noble ideals.

This might also have something to do with his style. To use the old creative writing adage, Mr. Kalanithi has a tendency to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’, so he captures all the broad-strokes of his experiences as a doctor and a patient but none of the specificity that I usually look for in memoirs. Also, some people have called his writing ‘beautiful’, but personally I found his sentences flowery, overwritten, and clunky with self-importance. It felt like he was vacillating between writing an academic paper and a piece that would impress a bunch of MFA students.

The one part that I loved about this book was his wife’s epilogue. I cried when I read it; it was what I hope this memoir could have been. Ms. Lucy Kalanithi’s sentences were spare, but each scene she wrote about from her life with Mr. Kalanithi were limned with intimacy, affection, and grief. It was in the epilogue that I learned about the kind of person Mr. Kalanithi really was, and felt the pain of his family at losing him.

All that being said, I’m definitely the minority here (much to my distress, since I didn’t expect to be), so I would still recommend this to people grappling with grief. I think the fact that so many others loved this book is proof that Mr. Kalanithi’s memoir is more likely than not to resonate with someone on a similar journey. However, I’d also like to recommend Nina Riggs’s The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying or Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, both of which I’d picked up around the same time, and both of which had been more personally meaningful to me.

Have you read this book? What were your thoughts on it? What memoirs have really stayed with you? Let me know in the comments!

Find me on Goodreads | Read from November 3, 2019 - January 6, 2020