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When Breath Becomes Fresh Air by Paul Kalanithi - Book Review

2 min read
When Breath Becomes Fresh Air by Paul Kalanithi - Book Review

Table of contents

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences
  1. Knowledge can never replace wisdom gained from first-hand experience.
  2. We derive meaning from human relationality.
  3. There are often no right answers.
🌟 Star Rating


🎨 Impressions

I decided to read this book because of a superficial reason: it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. It, however, did not disappoint.

Kalanithi’s childhood was governed by school, similar to mine. In that respect, I felt like I partially understood where Kalanithi came from. He does a great job of describing his path to becoming a physician.

Along the way, he recalls some of his most dismal stories from medical school and residency to inform us about how he developed the values he had. In particular, one story stood out. Kalanithi had to help with a pregnant woman who had frail twins because of an early birth. The day after, Kalanithi learned that the twins had died. Later, he talks to a coworker, who remarks, “Most mothers with stillborns still have to go through labor and deliver. Can you imagine? At least these guys had a chance.” It pained me to think of having to deliver stillborns, knowing they had died.

One peculiarity I noticed was Kalanithi’s motivation to be a doctor. He wanted to find out “what really matters in life.” This isn’t the typical selfless motivation you see in shows. You can find Kalanithi’s candidness throughout the book, which I appreciate.

Kalanithi’s wife notes that the memoir didn’t accurately account for Kalanithi’s humor or emphasis on relationships. I wish Kalanithi did include those aspects so we got to know him more, but it didn’t take away from the book’s ability to grab my attention.

How I Discovered It

I was looking for books to read for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month when I found this book.

Who Should Read It?

You should read When Breath Becomes Fresh Air if you’re

  • into memoirs/autobiographies,
  • want to be a physician,
  • or are scared of death.
✍️ My Top 3 Quotes
Because I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.
The physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.
Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.
Michel Liao

Michel Liao

Boise, Idaho, United States
Hello! I'm a sophomore studying computer science at Princeton. I like reading, rock climbing, and running.