When Breath Becomes Air: Book Review – Mudmee Sereeyothin

Hello and thank you for checking out this book review column! My name is Mudmee and I love reading. I am super excited to share some of my book reviews with you. I hope you’ll find them helpful and maybe even decide to pick up one of these titles. This week, I will be reviewing Paul Kalanithi’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated autobiography “When Breath Becomes Air.”

“There is a moment, a cusp when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.” – Paul Kalanithi


At age 35, Paul Kalanithi was finishing his last year of residency at Stanford University and looking forward to an extremely successful career as a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. Around this time, however, his health suddenly began to deteriorate. After being diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer, Paul’s life took a drastic turn—instead of being the doctor, he became the patient, and suddenly, the notion of death loomed overhead.

“When Breath Becomes Air” is an autobiography that follows Paul Kalanithi’s life before and after his diagnosis. Readers are able to catch a glimpse into Kalanithi’s past, from his childhood to his college experience, where he eventually chose to pursue neurosurgery. Along the way, Kalanithi faces dilemmas concerning his marriage, a possible child, and the challenges presented while pursuing a medical career. Kalanithi’s writing takes readers along on his journey in wrestling with what it means to live and die.


“When Breath Becomes Air” is raw, honest, moving, and deeply thought-provoking. Kalanithi’s skill in crafting lovely sentences helped to draw out the meaningful messages he imparted on the reader. “When Breath Becomes Air” is not difficult to read or understand—Kalanithi is able to masterfully convey his ideas with simple words put together beautifully. One of my favorite lines from the book is “You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” I was struck by the way Kalanithi seamlessly married a mathematical image with a philosophical idea, leaving readers with a vivid image to illustrate his point. This quote also exemplifies how being a scholar and lover of English literature and philosophy (in addition to being a doctor and scientist) led Kalanithi to draw from a variety of disciplines to make sense of his situation. Kalanithi approaches his analyses of his life with such candor and thoughtfulness that his book led me to ponder my own position in life. In particular, his quote “If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?” left me thinking about what it means to live meaningfully.


Emotional, wise, inspiring. An important book. 9.5/10