November Book Club: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi


When our MilMB Book Club chose When Breath Becomes Air for our November book club choice, I knew that this would be a thoughtful and intellectual memoir. I had many friends who raved about the book, and book reviews were all positive.

Yet, I was not prepared for how much this slim book would move me emotionally. I finished this book on an airplane and made the passenger in the seat next to me quite uncomfortable as I sobbed! Kalanithi’s reflections on life, love, medicine, and the human capacity for both strength and weakness evoked many reactions and emotions from myself and all of us in the book club.

I knew the basic synopsis of the author’s short life. Paul Kalanithi, M.D., was a neurosurgeon, a writer, an accomplished academic, a son, a husband, and a father. He grew up in Arizona with a loving family and a desire to study literature. It was during his studies for his B.A. and M.A. in English that he felt a desire to study the meaning of words in connection to the biological and physical mechanics of language and the body. He chose to go into medicine, like his father, and chose neurosurgery as his specialty. His academic life was impressive alone; he attained five college degrees, won numerous academic and professional awards, and he attended several prestigious schools – Cambridge University, Yale University, and a residency at Stanford University. During all of this, Kalanithi met and married his wife, fathered a child, and learned a great deal about life, medicine, and how to bridge both of these concepts.

Why is this such a tragic memoir, you ask?

Even though Kalanithi was very successful and seemed to live a fulfilled life, he was not immune to life itself. At the age of 36, he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He spoke candidly in his memoir of his diagnosis and illness. He struggled to balance his medical knowledge with the experience of being the patient. He was honest about the highs and lows of cancer treatment and of preparing for death in the face of overwhelming odds. He was able to finish most of his book before his passing, and his last words are a testament to his life, his family, and his legacy.

This read was heavy, and I was not the only one to empty a box of tissues during the last chapter! Earlier this month, I posted about the questions we would discuss at our monthly Zoom and Facebook meeting (click here for the link to that post).

Here are a few answers from our members:

 – Paul wrote that the question he asked himself was not “why me,” but “why not me.”  Could you relate?  Do you agree?

This was such a thought-provoking observation, but he hit the nail right on the head. We often look at those who are diagnosed with an illness or disease and wonder, “Why him/her?” But this can be said for nearly anyone. No one chooses to have bad things happen to them because this is life – good and bad, without discrimination. As Amie replied, “I think it’s such an uncommon sentiment in our culture … the truth is no one is immune to cancer or sickness or bad things.”

 – What do you think of Paul and Lucy’s decision to have a child, despite his illness and prognosis?

This is a tough question to answer outside of the situation. Is it right to have a child, knowing that you will probably die and miss out on most of that child’s life? Is it brave to have a child with the person you love, even if you know you might raise that child alone? While some of us differed on this decision, we could all agree that it was neither right nor wrong. This is a decision that can only be made by the people involved and impacted by the outcome.

 – Given that Paul had a love for literature and the meaning of words, do you think the title had any significance that was not obvious in his memoir?  What do YOU think “When Breath Becomes Air” means?

There are so many ways to interpret this meaning, and all of us had great thoughts on this! The general consensus was that our breath or our words should be more than just air. These, like life, should have meaning and purpose to ourselves and to others. Brandi wrote, “I think breath is something we take for granted, and air is something everyone needs. I think our breathe/life shouldn’t be taken for granted … it should have meaning.”

Whether you laughed, cried, loved, or hated this memoir, the MilMB Book Club gives When Breath Becomes Air nothing but praise. We enjoyed learning more about Paul Kalanithi and his amazing yet short life. It is nice to see that his words or “breath” were definitely more than “air.”

And now…our December book choice! Our next book will be Class Mom by Laurie Gelman. Look out for our book club questions in mid-December!