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When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Death is no stranger to anyone. Every living thing inevitably culminates in death at some point of time. Yet, more often than not, mortality is forgotten and life taken for granted. It is said that a constant reminder of death makes one re-evaluate life and prioritise what is truly important. In fact, Steve Jobs once said, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most significant tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” But, is contemplating one’s death really that simple? 

When Breath Becomes Air follows the life of 36-year-old neuroscientist Paul Kalanithi. Towards the end of his decade-long training as a neurosurgeon at Stanford, he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. “Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die and I still didn’t know when. But, I now knew death acutely. The fact of death is unsettling,” he writes, in all honesty and vulnerability in this heart-wrenching memoir. 

Racing against time, Paul strives to find the meaning of his life through literature and neuroscience. Literature, according to him, “provides best account of life of the mind” and neuroscience “lays elegant rules of the brain”. Although he strays from literature in pursuit of neuroscience, in the end, it is literature that gives him hope during his darkest times. When he decides to give up, Samuel Beckett’s words–”I can’t go on; I’ll go on”–echoes in his mind, urging him to carry on. 

The poignant and compelling narration enables the reader to vividly live his happy childhood and empathetically walk his tragic trajectory. This emotive connect takes the reader through his phases of acceptance, desolation, indignation and denial, before coming face to face with his grim reality. 

Paul’s role reversal from a neurosurgeon to a defenseless patient helps him empathise with his past patients. His own physician shows him what it means to be “with” patients in their crucial moments, instead of simply being “at” their side. A good physician, he writes, not merely “staves off death”, but “works until patients can stand back up, face and make sense of their own existence.”

With the help of his doctor, Paul redefines his concept of time and rediscovers his values. He is finally able to blend life lessons from neuroscience and literature. Understanding what is truly important to him, he peacefully transitions into the role of a husband, writer, and father of his newborn child. 

When Breath Becomes Air gets readers to celebrate Paul’s life and not merely mourn for his untimely demise. The young man transitions from a naive youth to a mature human being in a brief span of time. He eventually faces death, not with bravado, but with dignity and poise. All in all, his candid reflection of human life makes this book one of a kind.  

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