Just as he was completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air, the memoir Kalanithi wrote in the midst of his illness, traces his journey from brilliant medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” to his life as a patient and new father faced with his own mortality. As his body declines, his spirit expands. “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,” he writes, “hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.”
What makes life worth living in the face of death? How do you handle the loss of all you’ve dreamed and what do you hope for when the future you’ve imagined is no longer possible? These are some of the questions with which Paul Kalanithi wrestles and for which he realizes his medical training offers few, if any, answers. When preparing to go to the hospital, he writes of packing three books: C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Heidegger’s Being and Time, and Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, telling his wife, “I need to make sense of my cancer through literature.” His decision to write the memoir of his decline also served as an exercise in understanding.