When Breath Becomes Air Book Summary - When Breath Becomes Air Book explained in key points
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When Breath Becomes Air summary

Paul Kalanithi

Finding hope in the face of insurmountable odds

4.2 (182 ratings)
19 mins

Brief summary

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is a memoir that follows a neurosurgeon's journey upon receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis. It offers a touching and insightful reflection on life, death, and the importance of finding meaning in one's limited time.

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    When Breath Becomes Air
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    The author had two passions that persisted throughout his life: literature and neuroscience.

    While he was growing up, the author, Paul Kalanithi, became obsessed with literary geniuses like Orwell, Camus, Sartre, Poe and Thoreau. It was this passion that informed his decision to study literature in college, but things turned out quite differently than he had planned. During the summer before college, he discovered another field that captivated him: human biology.

    Kalanithi was getting ready to head off to Stanford when his then-girlfriend gave him a book by Jeremy Leven called Satan: His Psychotherapy and Cure by the Unfortunate Dr. Kassler, J.S.P.S. He was fascinated by Leven’s idea that the brain is just an organic machine that enables the human mind to exist, so he signed up for courses in biology and neuroscience.

    Throughout his college career, Kalanithi continued to ponder big questions like, “what infuses life with meaning?”, looking to both literature and neuroscience for answers. Works of fiction remained powerful to him as he considered literature a manifestation of the mind’s life, and therefore of human meaning.

    So, while meaning itself is certainly no simple concept, he drew inspiration from writers like T. S. Eliot and his work The Waste Land, which connects meaninglessness to isolation, and came to believe that true meaning lies in human relationships.

    However, literature only offered one piece of the puzzle, and Kalanithi knew he had to keep studying neuroscience. He felt that, since the brain is the organ that enables the mind to exist, our ability to form relationships comes directly from our brains.

    This perspective was informed by his experiences. While visiting a home for people with brain injuries, Kalanithi found that the patients weren’t entirely capable of forming relationships.

    From there, neuroscience gave him a way to explain the laws of the brain, which were central to his understanding of meaning at large. Because of this fascination, he applied to medical school, but only through hands-on experience would he come to understand the true meanings of life and death.

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    What is When Breath Becomes Air about?

    When Breath Becomes Air (2016) tells the incredible story of Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist who was diagnosed with and died from cancer in his mid-thirties. These blinks detail his extraordinary journey in search of the meaning of life in the face of death.

    When Breath Becomes Air Review

    When Breath Becomes Air (2016) is a profoundly moving memoir by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who grapples with his mortality after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Here's why this book is worth every reader's time:

    • It offers a deep exploration of life, death, and the meaning of existence, provoking profound introspection and contemplation.
    • The book presents a unique perspective from both a doctor and a patient, shedding light on the human experience and the delicate balance between art and science.
    • Through eloquent storytelling and introspective reflections, Kalanithi's existential journey compels readers to reflect on their own purpose and appreciate the beauty of life.

    Who should read When Breath Becomes Air?

    • Philosophers and thinkers
    • Medical students and those interested in the field
    • Anyone who has ever lost a loved one

    About the Author

    Paul Kalanithi was an Indian-American writer and award-winning surgeon. He attended the Yale School of Medicine and completed his residency at Stanford University.

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    When Breath Becomes Air FAQs 

    What is the main message of When Breath Becomes Air?

    The main message of When Breath Becomes Air is a reflection on life and the pursuit of meaning amidst mortality.

    How long does it take to read When Breath Becomes Air?

    The reading time for When Breath Becomes Air varies depending on the reader's speed, but it typically takes several hours. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is When Breath Becomes Air a good book? Is it worth reading?

    When Breath Becomes Air is a powerful and moving book. It offers profound insights on life, death, and the search for purpose, making it a highly recommended read.

    Who is the author of When Breath Becomes Air?

    Paul Kalanithi is the author of When Breath Becomes Air.

    What to read after When Breath Becomes Air?

    If you're wondering what to read next after When Breath Becomes Air, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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    • Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
    • Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
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