Of the books I read in 2016, 'When Breath Becomes Air' was probably the most impressive, and the most well written. Paul Kalanithi was a brilliant young mind who loved to study literature and science. He had to choose one discipline to stay with and ended up going with medicine, specifically neuroscience.
As a 36-year-old doctor, he discovers that he has lung cancer and gets a poor prognosis. A brilliant neurosurgeon suddenly finds himself facing a severe role reversal: one day he is a doctor treating patients with serious problems and the other he is the patient fighting for his survival.
'When Breath Becomes Air' chronicles Paul's career throughout his treatment – the discovery of the disease, the hope of a possible remission, the uncertainty about the future, the decision to become a father, the consciousness of the end of life, and the anguish of saying goodbye. He also goes on a journey to find the meaning and reality of life and death from the perspectives of both a doctor and a patient.
What follows is an examination of what's important in life. A lover of literature and philosophy, Paul has always sought to understand the relationship between life and death, identity and consciousness, ethics and virtue. His narrative is honest and poignant. But, at the same time, poetic and delicate. He also echoes our own reflections on what makes life worth living.
Unfortunately, Paul died in March 2015. He left behind a daughter of eight months and the unfinished manuscript of this book. Who wrote the final pages of the book and sent the text to publication was his wife, Lucy, since it was her husband's last wish.
The book has haunted the American literary market. The New York Times says it is "a must read", and the Washington Post praises the elegance of the writing, recommending reading it while warning readers that they will cry. I certainly did.
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