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.