Review of “When Breath Becomes Air”

“When Breath Becomes Air”  is the memoir of Paul Kalanathi, a brilliant and promising neurosurgeon who receives a life-changing cancer diagnosis at the age of 36.  The book follows his journey over the next two years as he struggles to come to terms with the inevitability of death.

Kalanathi is used to dealing with cancer as a doctor but faces it in an entirely new way as a patient.  His diagnosis understandably causes him to grapple with questions of meaning and purpose in his life. As he does so, he begins to reassess his view of Christianity and regains an interest in the childhood faith that he left behind in medical school.

After being brought up in a Christian family Kalanathi rejected his faith in favour of an exclusively scientific worldview that would provide a complete explanation of the universe, “minus outmoded concepts like souls, God and white bearded men in robes.” But he struggled with this worldview after realising that scientific methodology was the product of human hands and therefore unable to reach an idea of permanent Truth.

Truth is an important concept for Kalanathi, but the fact that he comes tantalisingly close to an understanding of it and yet misses the mark is tragic.  He proposes a postmodern idea of truth as being contained partially within each individual, concluding that the struggle towards the idea of “capital-T Truth” is an impossible task:

“In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pear diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer an eighth, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth.”

But the Truth that he longs for is of course contained in Christ, who after all calls himself the “The Way, the Truth and the Life.”

I was moved when I reached the end of the book. It wasn’t trite or overly sentimental.  It’s an honest portrayal of a cancer sufferer trying to find meaning in the face of the death. Paul’s writing style is so winsome, his personality so likeable, and his account so honest that in the end you are inevitably rooting for him.  But I very much felt a sense that the book ended prematurely.  There was another chapter left to write, a new beginning as he welcomed his daughter into the world, tragically cut short.

“When Breath Becomes Air” brings home the message that life is brief.  For some of us, it is much shorter than we are expecting or are prepared for.  Whilst I don’t agree with its philosophy of life or worldview, this book contains an urgent and timely message.  Make the most of each day, Kalanathi says.  Search for meaning.  Search for truth.  An important lesson, and one which we would do well to listen to.

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Kalanathi, Paul.  When Breath Becomes Air. Vintage, Feb 2017

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