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Review of When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi


I forget who recommended that I read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Perhaps it was my friend at Harvard Medical School who also recommended I read Hawking’s The Theory of Everything, but I’m not really sure. The only reason I mention that is that When Breath Becomes Air is so different from the military history and politics books like Phase Line Green and Atlas Shrugged that I normally read.

In any case, When Breath Becomes Air is absolutely excellent. The author, Paul Kalanithi, uses beautiful and concise language to describe his ultimately fatal battle with cancer and what it taught him about life.

Normally, I wouldn’t read a sad, science-based book like that. But, in this case, someone recommended that I read it so I did. And I am far better for it; the book taught me lots.

Therefore, I recommend that you read it. It might be outside your comfort zone or interest area, but it’s well worth your while.

Summary of When Breath Becomes Air

Imagine working years to finally become qualified to work in your chosen profession. Now, imagine those years were full of not only academics but also endless 14 hour days of high-intensity training. That’s what it was like for Paul Kalanithi to become a neurosurgeon. Frustrating, tiring, mentally and physically strenuous; it’s difficult to become a neurosurgeon. But, he did it.

Then, tragedy struck. Once he was almost at the finish line, just a few months away from being able to practice and research, he was diagnosed with cancer.

Now, start imagining again. What would you do if that happened to you? Would you give up, resigned to your fate of wasting away from cancer? Or would you fight against time and nature to complete your goals, write a book, and leave a legacy of heroism?

Paul chose to do the latter. In a months-long bout of virtue that any Stoic philosopher would admire, Paul fought to the finish line and received his medical degree. Then, he wrote When Breath Becomes Air so that others could learn what it was like to fight cancer and still find meaning and purpose in life despite certain death.

When Breath Becomes Air is a sad book, make no mistake. Ultimately, however, it’s a tale of triumph. And that’s why it’s worth reading; the anecdotes Paul gives and the philosophy he imparts leave the reader ready to take on the world.

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Analysis of When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air kept me captivated. Despite being a doctor by training, Paul is an incredible writer that is able to use words to perfectly show what he wants to say. Additionally, the simultaneously depressing and triumphant tone of the book kept me engaged.

However, I was unable to connect it to anything at first. Yes, it was impactful, but it seemed to exist in a vacuum. It seemed unlike anything I had previously read. But then, a few days ago, it hit me.

When Breath Becomes Air is a modern telling of one man’s attempt to live a Stoic life, even if just at the end. Sure, unlike Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, Paul was a Christian. But, the life he tried to live was otherwise similar.

Despite having brutal, deadly cancer, he got out of bed and built something, as Marcus Aurelius said to do. Additionally, he knew how to live life well, how to act correctly in the face of death, and even when all seemed lost had the right values and goals.

His was truly a Stoic life worth living.


To me, When Breath Becomes Air was meaningful for two reasons. The first, obviously, was the one I just wrote about. It shows how to live a Stoic life of virtue.

The second is that by reading When Breath Becomes Air, I saw that I need to venture outside of my comfort zone when choosing books. Yes, books about politics like The Federalist Papers, The Affluent Society or What the Anti-Federalists were For are great. Similarly, biographies like Principles and Reminiscences can be impactful because they show values by which to live. And, of course, military history books like Phase Line Green and The Two-Ocean War always keep me interested.

But, I rarely venture outside those categories. I rarely read fiction like Orphans of the Sky, science books like The Theory of Everything, or even philosophy books like How to Be a Friend by Cicero. That’s a shame. I, and everyone else, need to read widely.

A wide base of knowledge is required to deal with the issues we currently face. Otherwise, you can’t see multiple perspectives. For example, what good is it to read How to Win Friends and Influence People if you don’t also read its evil cousin, The 48 Laws of Power? You need to read widely to get both perspectives.

When Breath Becomes Air reminded me of that. From now on, I’m going to try to read more widely.

By: Gen Z Conservative