Paul Kalanithi’s ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ is a disappointing book. In this book review, I will state my reasons why I found this book not as good as what it was supposed to be.
Let’s start with the praise given to this book:
“Rattling. Heartbreaking. Beautiful” – Atul Gawande
“Powerful & Moving” – Daily Express
“Less a memoir than a reflection on life and purpose….A vital book” – The Economist
“Moving, humble and impossible to ignore” – Sunday Times
And then when you have a report that states even Bill Gates read it and gave it an amazing review – well, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t have a lot of doubts if you should or shouldn’t purchase this book.
And well – that is why I did purchase this book.
So now what is this book all about?
When Breath Becomes Air is the story of Paul Kalanithi, a doctor on the verge of finishing his neurosurgeon training, who is diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.
The book can be divided into 3 parts.
Part 1 is a biography of Paul Kalanithi starting when he was a teenager trying to discover his calling and concluding with his death.
Part 2 is Paul Kalanithi’s reflections on being a doctor and the doctor-patient relationship.
Part 3 is Paul Kalanithi philosophical quest for an understanding of what makes life meaningful.
Throughout the book,
As an ardent reader of books, I quickly understood that the author was under exceptional pressure – both against time and his own mortality to complete this book as quickly as possible. And when you realize that the author was diagnosed with advanced stages of cancer and was getting weaker and weaker every single day, you appreciate the herculean effort the author had to put in to complete this task.
However, I would like to keep sympathy out of this review and look at it objectively. And that is where I have to be critical.
The author being both a medical professional and a Stanford graduate who specialized in English literature was struck down with cancer when he was on the road to completing his residency at Stanford in neurosurgery. And given that he had less time – decided to write down his final moments, his spiritual quest to make sense of his short life and to leave his daughter his final words. So in that sense – this is a powerful gesture by the author to leave a lasting footprint in the lives of those who truly mattered to him.
However, the book is not without its drawbacks.
First and foremost, lets accept one thing. Writing a book that too under pressure of time and your own well-being is not the ideal circumstance for writing a book. And while this in itself is a herculean task – being mentally, emotionally & physically drained out due to a terminal illness doesn’t help either. So that is where ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ seems truly rushed, cluttered and at times boring. And though I deeply respect, appreciate and admire the authors unbreakable spirit, I would say his ability to come out with a worthwhile manuscript proves less than impressive. There were so many instances where I just kept flipping the pages out of boredom wondering when the philosophical blah blah blah would just end. Its like we are made aware that the doctor is going to die and that he is contemplating what is the meaning of life – but then whats next? At some point I just ended up getting desensitized with the recurring bland, boastful & boring contemplation of what was, what could be and what will be in the future.
Even though I understand how powerful & profound the process of death & dying is – the book with the thoughts & reflections of the author proves to be of very poor quality. And to put it mildly – the book proves to be rather boring and a waste of time if it wasn’t for the last chapter where Paul’s widow Lucy Kalanithi manages to sum up the entire experience into the books Epilogue.
It is beautiful, bold & breaking.
Read this book if you’re interested in how a doctor thinks about his own death and if you don’t mind stories without silver linings. However, if you are expecting anything more than this – you will be sorely disappointed as the book is forgettably boring at its worst and rather ordinary at its best.
I am just glad I managed to struggle to finish it quickly and get it over with. And given that I don’t want to be disrespectful, I will avoid stating anything rude in the end other than giving it my overall rating.
1 out of 10.
Don’t bother buying the book.
It’s a waste of time.