Book: When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi’s book When Breath Becomes Air is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I stayed up late the past two nights reading it while in bed. As I put my Kindle on the bedside table last night I had tears in my eyes.

Paul passed away on March 9, 2015 at age 37. He was a Stanford-trained neurosurgeon and writer. He was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in 2013, though he never smoked. He was married to Lucy (Goddard) Kalanithi who sounds like an amazing woman. When he died he had an infant daughter Cady. His family was extremely close to him.

I know Paul’s brother Jeevan Kalanithi. Jeevan co-founded Sifteo, which we invested in with True Ventures. Sifteo’s products were critically acclaimed but not commercially successful and was acquired by 3D Robotics, which we are also investors in with True Ventures. Jeevan is Chief Product Officer at 3D Robotics and has done an awesome job. And, more importantly, is an amazing person.

So, as I read Paul’s book, while I didn’t know him, I felt like I had a sense of him through knowing Jeevan. I read Paul’s New Yorker Essay My Last Day as a Surgeon which was published after he died. Read it if you want a taste of Paul’s writing, genius, empathy, beauty, and authenticity. Now, imagine an entire book like this. Read his essay Before I Go for another taste. Or try How Long Have I Got Left? which was published in the New York Times a year before he died.

If you haven’t yet bought When Breath Becomes Air, please go do it now. It’s #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for a reason. It might be the most powerful book about being human, being mortal, learning about, confronting, dealing with, and ultimately accepting one’s own mortality. It’s beautifully written – almost poetic in its rhythm – and aggressively real. There is no prognosticating, no rationalizing, no baloney – just real, raw feelings throughout the book.

And it ends suddenly. Paul dies. Unlike so many things that we hear about that are tied up nicely in a bow, life – and death – doesn’t really work this way. And Paul helps us understand this by taking us through his journey.

When I was in my mid 20s, struggling with depression and having paranoid fears about being deathly ill, my therapist recommended I read Norman Cousins book Anatomy of an Illness: As Perceived by the Patient. It changed me fundamentally and shifted my relationship with my own mortality. It didn’t eliminate my depression, but it helped me understand how my viewpoint impacted my physiology, and how important this was in healing.

Paul’s book takes this to a new level. Like Cousins, it’s deeply personal, but by being current, it’s more accessible. And for me, more powerful.

Thank you Paul for writing this book. And thank you to Paul’s family for bringing it into the world.

  • There’s something so wonderfully refreshing about talking about death. I keep going back to Dag Hammarskjold’s most wonderful quote – In the last analysis, it is our conception of death which decides our answers to all the questions that life puts to us..

  • Had a very very very close friend fight pancreatic cancer for 22 months. It’s amazing how slowly death crawls to your door. But, then, in an instant you are gone.

    • That’s how my grandmother went (not pancreatic, but then all of a sudden…) I remember rushing to Dallas from Boston to get there before she died. I got to the hospital about 15 minutes late. I sat down in her room and just cried. I didn’t know what to do. And then at some point I realized there was nothing for me to do.

      • Before my friend passed, I was at a dinner. There was a priest there. We walked down the street together after dinner and I told him about my friend. He told me, “Tell your friend how much he has meant to your life. That gives him permission to die.” I did (along with my other close friends) two days later, and he died three days after that. His wife was in the kitchen, one daughter at dance class, and one daughter in his basement. He sat in his favorite chair and died alone. The question is, why did we wait until he was on death’s door to say how much we meant to each other? I am glad I did, and mad I waited so long.

        • I’ve told several friends today that I love them. We should do a lot more of that.

  • tyronerubin

    Thanks @bfeld:disqus ordered now on Audible.

  • Thanks for sharing. Getting it…

  • Tabitha Farrar

    BBC Woman’s Hour interviewed his wife on the Podcast I listened to yesterday. Very interesting.

  • Agreed – a must read. My son was a co-resident of Paul’s in the Stanford Neurosurgery program – Paul’s death is a tragedy on so many levels not the least of which was his many brilliant talents and ability to express himself so eloquently on the most fundamental human issues. His wife is also incredible and had a great interview with Katie Couric

  • I loved this book.
    I am not sure why I was surprised when I saw your blog this morning? I admire and envy the number of books your read.
    If you get the opportunity you may enjoy, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande.
    Thank you for sharing.

  • BSchildt

    A majority of the books I’ve read lately and on my “To Read” list are your recommendations Brad. Thank you.

  • Read this book, also recommend , Creatures for a Day. Not as personal as When Breath becomes Air, but enlightening nevertheless.

  • There was a story on NPR this pm about this book, you can probably look it up on their site. There was a pretty extended interview with the widow if you want to hear her views as she’s touring around promoting the book I think.

  • Shani C. Taylor

    Thanks for sharing this post and book recommendation!

  • Sebastien Latapie

    Thank you for sharing. Started it last night and had to finish it! What an amazing story. Truly inspiring to see someone find their calling and aggressively pursue it. Introduced me to many questions about science, mortality, and meaning of life that I simply was not considering before.

    Will be chewing on this for a while!

  • Rosey

    Simply ‘Ditto’, Brad.

    I despise cancer.

    Pam (wife) lost her scintillatingly accomplished sister, Mary, a beloved elementary school teacher, to a glioblastoma a year ago. The eleven month journey was one I would not wish on one’s worst enemy. Her first oncologist told her, simply, you have about a year to live and have about six months or less to be even aware of it. An astonishingly correct (as it turned out), yet blisteringly cruel introduction to the monster.

    The way Mary and her husband, Jim, navigated those months, then weeks, then days, then hours, was an example of compassion and guts and courage, and kindness I cannot image matching. Mary’s memorial service was standing room only.

  • Thank you Brad. Awaiting takeoff to Seattle and found the end of Paul’s life and book a perfect awakening for me to begin. Uplifting.

  • gandalfu

    Here is a similar tale, told by an hungarian poet.