8Books Review: “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

breathMy schedule rarely allows me to read entire books, but after I read about Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, a New York Times bestseller, I decided that I would actually buy and read it. While Kalanithi didn’t focus his book on Asian Americans, much of his book is interesting from an Asian American standpoint. I strongly recommend it.

Spoilers ahead (although most people who plan to read the book already know what happens in the end), so if you don’t want to know the details, please don’t continue!

When Breath Becomes Air is a wonderfully written story of a man’s search for meaning in the face of death. It’s not surprising that it is well written, as Kalanithi has an English degree from Stanford and Masters from Cambridge. He starts with dealing with his cancer diagnosis and then circles back through his childhood, his career choices, and his evolving relationships.  I found it fascinating how events brought him to a career in Neurosurgery – extra reading assignments given to him by his mother interested him in reading books from his brother, which developed into an interest in philosophy, which generated a search for meaning. That search for meaning brought him to look for it in that place that generates behavior and thought – the brain. Wondering about how he could affect and study the brain lead him to a medical career in Neurosurgery. As he neared the launching of an incredible career, he learned that the culmination of so much hard work and what he hoped for would never happen. What to do? What does it all mean? Those are the type of questions that Kalanithi struggled with.

Many of his life experiences are familiar Asian American experiences, such as his mother being heavily involved with his education, to the point of joining the school board and giving him extra outside reading to do. He puts a positive twist on those experiences. Rather than portraying her as an obsessed tiger mom, he talks about how she forced his high school to offer AP courses. It had none before – I went to a high school like that and I wish my mom could have pushed them to offer AP courses. The extra reading opened up new worlds to him rather than just being burdensome work and led him to his career choice.  While many people have talked about the evils of the model minority myth, he talks about how being a model can be beneficial to others. At his high school, the salutatorian Leo, who ranked in the school after him (Kalanithi was the valedictorian) and the poorest kid that he knew, was told by guidance counselors that since he was smart, he should join the army.  Leo said, “F* that” and that he would follow Kalanithi’s example. Leo got into Yale.

For the many Asian Americans in Silicon Valley, he often talks about are very close to home, such as the intense career dedication, distance running, cycling, and scenes and places in the Santa Cruz mountains. Many Asian Americans who have medical professionals in their immediate and extended family (I have a lot of them), his story will seem familiar. His father the cardiologist is out a lot working – not unlike my father when I was younger although Dad wasn’t a doctor. As a medical professional, Kalanithi figures out his own diagnosis. The Wife does that, to the point of occasionally telling her doctors exactly what to prescribe. Medical professionals can be the worst patients – also familiar territory.

The book ends with a section written by his widow. She says that in many ways, the book is is incomplete.  I would agree. I wanted to know much more, such as about Leo. What ethnicity was Leo, a student who did well academically and thus was encouraged to join the army and not go to college? Kalanithi talked about the gap because English majors and the sciences – did he see that his work and writing do anything to close that gap? We will never know.

I strongly recommend When Breath Becomes Air. It’s a fascinating story that will stimulate your thinking. Plus, it is a some ways an Asian American story with a different twist. As his widow writes, it is incomplete, but still satisfying.

You can see a video of Kalanithi and his widow here, along with some of other thoughts on the book and his life.

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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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