Title: When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
Run Time: 5 hours, 35 minutes (unabridged)
Release Date: February 16, 2016
Publisher: Random House Audio
Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir
At the age of 36, and a resident in neurosurgery, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. With no real hope of recovery, Kalanithi was forced to meditate on the process of dying, the nature of death, and the fates of those he would leave behind.
If When Breath Becomes Air sounds depressing, well, that’s because it is. It’s the story of a man who is much too young to die, but who is dying nonetheless. It’s thoughtful, profound, moving, and uplifting in the strangest of ways. It’s part memoir, part meditation, and part philosophy on what it means to die, and to die young. How to die, and what you leave behind.
It works very well, in fact, hand-in-hand with another book on death by another South Asian doctor: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. Side by side, these two books are a deep look at what it means to die, and why we should think about it before we’re imminently faced with it. It’s one of the most important things we will ever do, to die, and how we do it matters. It’s depressing to think about, sure, but it’s also one only things we can be sure about in life. Why wouldn’t we meditate on it?
I realize that this isn’t a traditional review, and that’s because it’s so hard to review When Breath Becomes Air. It’s a slip of a book in print, and just 5 1/2 hours unabridged on audio. Sunil Malhotra brings Paul to life for the reader; when it comes to a memoir, you know the narrator is successful if he becomes one with the author, the voice of the author, in your head, and Malhotra did just that. When I think of Paul now, which is more often than you’d think given the weeks that have separated me finishing the book and this review, it’s Malhotra’s voice I hear in my head.
Sometimes, you need to be moved utterly and completely, and When Breath Becomes Air is perfect to turn to in those moments. It’s short, but packs a profound punch that will leave you utterly breathless. The depth of this memoir, the layers to be peeled away, will leave it lingering in your thoughts long after you’ve finished listening or turned the last pages. I thought it worked incredibly well in audio form, as it allows you one step closer into Paul’s world. You experience his joys, frustrations, and sorrows right alongside him, and in the end, you weep at his bedside, unable to hold yourself together any longer.