Review: When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have mixed feelings about this book. It is unlike anything else I've read.

(Below there are some spoilers).

I enjoyed the book - it made me wish I'd met the author. He lets you into his life and then unloads some of his most profound thoughts onto the page. I guess my hesitation is that sometimes his words really connect and sometimes they don't.

I liked the day to day human story of his life - how he was raised, his description of his experiences in college leading up to his career choice, his marriage and almost breakup, the decision to have a child. All of his writing about these things hit the high notes, and helped you understand who he was. When he gets philosophical on the meaning of life however, things aren't always as well put together.

Some of those sections, like toward the end when he discusses religion and science, and the roles they both play in helping us understand meaning in life, were really well thought out. While I don't fully agree with his thoughts on that topic, they made sense to me as his understanding. Other times when, for example, he tries to explain what went into his decision to choose a career in neurology over writing (as a fulfillment of a search for meaning in life and of life), his words don't flow as well, and it's as if he's trying too hard.

But I can't say that I fault him for trying. The very fact that this was the project he threw himself into when he knew his time was short does make a difference and perhaps you, like me, will be more forgiving because of it.

I agree with others who say that the epilogue written by his wife was very well done. I cried when she described how they brought his daughter to him as he lay on his hospital bed dying. When she explains why Paul wrote the book and what she feels he's trying to illustrate in doing so, she absolutely hits the mark. It would have been better to have that bit of discussion be at the beginning of the book.

I listened to the audiobook. The narrator Sunil Molhatra did an excellent job and helped bring out the poetic nature of many of the passages. Cassandra Campbell narrates the epilogue and likewise did a fine job.