BKMT READING GUIDES
When Breath Becomes Air
by Paul Kalanithi
Hardcover : 256 pages
118 clubs reading this now
18 members have read this book
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • For readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, this inspiring, exquisitely observed memoir finds hope and beauty in the face of insurmountable odds as an idealistic young neurosurgeon attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
THE WASHINGTON POST • THE NEW YORK TIMES • NPR
BOOKS FOR A BETTER LIFE AWARD FINALIST
At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.
Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.
Praise for When Breath Becomes Air
“I guarantee that finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option. . . . Part of this book’s tremendous impact comes from the obvious fact that its author was such a brilliant polymath. And part comes from the way he conveys what happened to him—passionately working and striving, deferring gratification, waiting to live, learning to die—so well.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“An emotional investment well worth making: a moving and thoughtful memoir of family, medicine and literature. It is, despite its grim undertone, accidentally inspiring.”—The Washington Post
“Possesses the gravity and wisdom of an ancient Greek tragedy . . . [Kalanithi] delivers his chronicle in austere, beautiful prose. The book brims with insightful reflections on mortality that are especially poignant coming from a trained physician familiar with what lies ahead.”—The Boston Globe
“Devastating and spectacular . . . [Kalanithi] is so likeable, so relatable, and so humble, that you become immersed in his world and forget where it’s all heading.”—USA Today
“It’s [Kalanithi’s] unsentimental approach that makes When Breath Becomes Air so original—and so devastating. . . . Its only fault is that the book, like his life, ends much too early.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Split my head open with its beauty.”—Cheryl Strayed
Editorial ReviewAn Amazon Best Book of January 2016: When Breath Becomes Air is a powerful look at a stage IV lung cancer diagnosis through the eyes of a neurosurgeon. When Paul Kalanithi is given his diagnosis he is forced to see this disease, and the process of being sick, as a patient rather than a doctor--the result of his experience is not just a look at what living is and how it works from a scientific perspective, but the ins and outs of what makes life matter. This heart-wrenching book will capture you from page one and still have you thinking long after the final sentence. –Penny Mann
ExcerptNo Excerpt Currently Available
Discussion Questions1. How did you come away feeling, after reading this book? Upset? Inspired? Anxious? Less afraid?
2. What did you think of Paul’s exploration of the relationship between science and faith? As Paul wrote, “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. Between these core passions and scientific theory, there will always be a gap. No system of thought can contain the fullness of human experience.” Do you agree?
3. How do you think the years Paul spent, tending to patients and training to be a neurosurgeon, affected the outlook he had on his own illness? When Paul wrote that the question he asked himself was not “why me,” but “why not me,” how did that strike you? Could you relate to it?
4. Paul had a strong background in the humanities, and read widely throughout his life. Only after getting a Master’s in English Literature did he decide that medicine was the right path for him. Do you think this made him a better doctor? A different kind of doctor? If so, how? How has reading influenced your life?
5. What did you think of Paul and Lucy’s decision to have a child, in the face of his illness? When Lucy asked him if he worried that having a child would make his death more painful, and Paul responded, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did,” how did that strike you? Do you agree that life should not be about avoiding suffering, but about creating meaning?
6. Were there passages or sentences that struck you as particularly profound or moving?
7. Given that Paul died before the book was finished, what are some of the questions you would have wanted to ask him if he were still here today?
8. Paul was determined to face death with integrity, and through his book, demystify it for people. Do you think he succeeded?
9. In Lucy’s epilogue, she writes that “what happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy.” Did you come away feeling the same way?
How did this book impact your thoughts about medical care? The patient-physician relationship? End of life care?
11. Is this a book you will continue thinking about, now that you are done? Do you find it having an impact on the way you go about your days?
12. Lucy also writes that, in some ways, Paul’s illness brought them closer – that she FELL feel even more deeply in love with the “beautiful , focused man” he became in the last year of his life. Did you find yourself seeing how that could happen?
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