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  • Published: 3 January 2017
  • ISBN: 9781784701994
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 256
  • RRP: $22.99

When Breath Becomes Air

For readers of Atul Gawande's Being Mortal and Henry Marsh's Do No Harm, an unforgettably powerful and heart-breaking book about how to live.


'Rattling. Heartbreaking. Beautiful.' Atul Gawande, bestselling author of Being Mortal

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade's training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live.

When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi's transformation from a medical student asking what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity - the brain - and finally into a patient and a new father.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away?

Paul Kalanithi died while working on this profoundly moving book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

'A vital book about dying. Awe-inspiring and exquisite. Obligatory reading for the living' Nigella Lawson

  • Published: 3 January 2017
  • ISBN: 9781784701994
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 256
  • RRP: $22.99

About the author

Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon and writer. He held degrees in English literature, human biology, and history and philoso­phy of science and medicine from Stanford and Cambridge universities before graduating from Yale School of Medicine. He also received the American Academy of Neu­rological Surgery’s highest award for research.

His reflections on doctoring and illness have been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Paris Review Daily.

Kalanithi died in March 2015, aged 37. He is survived by his wife, Lucy, and their daughter, Elizabeth Acadia.

Praise for When Breath Becomes Air

Thanks to When Breath Becomes Air, those of us who never met Paul Kalanithi will both mourn his death and benefit from his life. This one of a handful of books I consider to be a universal donor - I would recommend it to anyone, everyone.

Ann Patchett, author of BEL CANTO

Writing isn't brain surgery, but it's rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former... A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Kirkus Starred Review

Rattling. Heartbreaking. Beautiful.

Atul Gawande, author of BEING MORTAL

Dr Kalanithi describes, clearly and simply, and entirely without self-pity, his journey from innocent medical student to professionally detached and all-powerful neurosurgeon to helpless patient, dying from cancer. He learns lessons about the reality of illness and the doctor-patient relationship that most doctors only learn in old age but Paul Kalanithi died at the tragically early age of 37. Every doctor should read this book - written by a member of our own tribe, it helps us understand and overcome the barriers we all erect between ourselves and our patients as soon as we are out of medical school

Henry Marsh, author of Do No Harm

A tremendous book, crackling with life, animated by wonder and by the question of how we should live. Paul Kalanithi lived and died in the pursuit of excellence, and by this testimonial, he achieved it.

Gavin Francis, author of Adventures in Human Being

Paul Kalanithi's memoir, When Breath Becomes Air. split my head open with its beauty. Truly. Madly. Deeply.

Cheryl Strayed, author of WILD

A great, indelible book ... as intimate and illuminating as Atul Gawande's "Being Mortal," to cite only one recent example of a doctor's book that has had exceptionally wide appeal ... I guarantee that finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option ... gripping from the start ... None of it is maudlin. Nothing is exaggerated. As he wrote to a friend: "It's just tragic enough and just imaginable enough." And just important enough to be unmissable.

New York Times

Devastating account of the shift from doctor to patient.

Charlotte Heathcote, Daily Express

A remarkable book about what it means to live.a tour de force.The book will be compared inevitably to Sacks' work and also to the iconic book that Joan Didion wrote about grief, The Year of Magical Thinking. And like that book, it's destined to become an elegiac classic on the subject of mortality. But it's a different feeling from Didion's gorgeous, melancholy fog of war. When Breath Becomes Air is electrically alive in its anticipation of death.

Lisa Chase, Elle

[A]n emotional investment well work making: a moving and thoughtful memoir of family, medicine and literature.His words are bracing for their honesty. He also writes beautifully about the philosophical aspect of medicine, neurosurgery in particular.

Nora Krug, Washington Post

It's a story so remarkable, so stunning, and so affecting that I had to take dozens of breaks just to compose myself enough to get through it.Although you know how this one ends, you still can't believe it. That's because the author -- a nonsmoker whose cancer was the result of a genetic mutation -- is so likeable, so relatable, and so humble, that you become immersed in his world and forget where it's all heading. It occurs to me, as I close this book again (but not for the final time), that when I'm next on rounds in the hospital, I will have something devastating and spectacular to recommend.

Matt McCarthy, USA Today

Profoundly moving book. A life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

Dara Gantly, Irish Medical Times

An unforgettable reflection on the practice of medicine and the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

Miss Dinky

Extraordinary.Remarkable. luminous, revelatory memoir about mortality and what makes being alive meaningful ... Lyrical, intimate, insistent and profound. Kalanithi had the mind of the polymath and the ear of a poet.

Heather Hodson, Daily Telegraph

A remarkable book. Kalanithi writes very well, in a plain and matter-of-fact way, without a trace of self-pity, and you are immediately gripped and carried along. [He] was clearly a deeply thoughtful and compassionate man, and his death is a great loss to medicine, but at least he has left this remarkable book behind.

Dr Henry Marsh, Observer

Powerful and poignant. Elegantly written posthumous memoir. Should be compulsory for anyone who intends to be a doctor. A profound reflection on the meaning of life.

Daisy Goodwin, Sunday Times


Katie Law, Evening Standard

A vital book about dying. Awe-inspiring and exquisite. Obligatory reading for the living.

Nigella Lawson

Powerful and poignant.

The Sunday Times

The power of this book lies in its eloquent insistence that we are all confronting our mortality every day, whether we know it or not. The real question we face, Kalanithi writes, is not how long, but rather how, we will live - and the answer does not appear in any medical textbook.

Alice Okeeffe, Guardian

A stark, fascinating, well-written and heroic memoir.

Stefanie Marsh, The Times

It turns out not really to be about dying at all but about life and how to live it - though the closeness of death gives it an urgency and economy. When Breath Becomes Air is a Renaissance book from a Renaissance man. It is a work of philosophy and morality, a reconciliation of science and religion. There is even plot and excitement. It was only with the restrained, elegant epilogue written by his wife Lucy Kalanithi that I found myself weeping helplessly. When Breath Becomes Air tells us what means to live a good life, by giving us a glimpse into an exceptional one.

Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times

It is [his wife] Lucy who completes the book with an honesty and elegance that echoes his own. This book goes a long way to achieving what Kalanithi wanted to achieve - helping people understand death and face their mortality. He emerges as a fine man who faced his own with fortitude and integrity.

Louise Jury, Independent

An astonishingly affecting memoir and eloquent examination of what it is to be human and confront your own mortality. This is a remarkable book by a man who was driven by his passion for his life, his loves and his career. His death is undoubtedly a tragedy but in writing this memoir he has guaranteed that his voice and the important story it tells will resonate for years to come.

Mernie Gilmore, Daily Express

Eloquent, elegant, heartbreaking memoir. As [Kalanithi] courageously faces his death, he takes care to celebrate love and hope in this sorrowful but ultimately life-affirming book.

Eithne Farry, Sunday Express

Through reading this book I have looked the bogeyman death in the face. Maybe it was the briefest of glances, and I want to play a little before I look again, but I feel richer for it. It is a sombre richness and there is sadness in it, but I am grateful. Grateful for this book and to its valiant author.

Mary McEvoy, Irish Independent

It would be hard to conceive of a more tragic story. Kalanithi provides a uniquely valuable perspective. [He] writes with eloquence, humour and honesty from both sides of the medical fence. His prose is fluid and precise, enlivened by brisk dialogue and offbeat anecdotes, mixing a surgeon's precision with a human touch. Filled to the brim.with joy, humour and meaning.

Wendy Moore, Literary Review

Less a memoir than a reflection on life and purpose. A vital book.

The Economist

[Kalanithi] wrote about practising medicine, about mortality, about finite time, with unfathomable tranquility and humour.

Radio Times

The effect of reading such clear-sighted and intelligent commentary on life and death is exhilarating. Astonishing and invigorating book... Rarely have words on both life and death made such an impact.

Stylist Magazine

In this slim but extraordinarily powerful memoir, Kalanithi grapples with the hardest questions with grace and courage... Lucid, humbling and heartbreaking.

Stephanie Cross, The Lady

Deeply moving memoir. Lessons on life and how to cherish it.

Daily Mail

Wrenching memoir. Moving, humble, and impossible to ignore.

UK Press Syndication

A sad but beautiful story. A remarkable book. A moving and thoughtful memoir of family, medicine and literature.

Anand Pillai, Asian Voice

A true and heart-breaking tale.

Love it!

A meditation on what makes a life worth living.


Kalanithi was a brilliant writer with a profound mind. The medical stories are endlessly gripping. But the book's true beauty emerges when Kalanithi's illness turns him from doctor to patient, facing death "eye to eye" with profound integrity and sometimes humour.

Louise Carpenter, Daily Telegraph

To the venerable canon of doctors who could write (from Chekhov to Oliver Sacks and Atul Gawande), another name can be added: that of Paul Kalanithi. Brilliantly written.

Louise Carpenter, Sunday Telegraph

[Paul Kalanithi's] chapters are about the triumph of the mind, of ambition, of determination over cancer in the final months of life; [Lucy Kalanithi's] are about the triumph of the heart.

Laura Freeman, Daily Mail

His exquisitely written, inspiring memoir is inevitably unfinished, but delivers the final word on dying with dignity.

Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday

An honest and eye-opening memoir.

Independent on Sunday

Wrenching memoir.Moving, humble and impossible to ignore.

The Scotsman

An extraordinary voice. His account is matter-of-fact, never self-pitying and often funny.

Jennifer Rohn, Times Higher Education

A deeply thoughtful and beautifully written book on the question of what makes life worth living.

Macmillan Cancer Support

Heart-wrenching memoir

Eastern Daily Press

The line between life and death has never been explored quite so personally as in Paul Kalanithi's wrenching memoir. The Final pages, from Paul and then Lucy, are moving, humble, and impossible to ignore'

Woman's Way

He writes with clarity, elegance, and honesty. When Breath Becomes Air is a deeply personal and moving book. Kalanithi died leaving the book unfinished. He left, though, his voice, speaking through this book about death and implicitly about life.

Frieda Klotz, Irish Independent

It's elegantly constructed, as befits a man who had a lifelong passion for reading and writing, and heartbreakingly honest too, with unflinching reflections on all the beloved people he must leave behind, and all the things left undone'


When I came to the end of the last flawless paragraph of When Breath Becomes Air, all I could do was turn to the first page and read the whole thing again. Searingly intelligent, beautifully written, and beyond brave, I haven't been so marked by a book in years.

Gabriel Weston, author of DIRECT RED

Absolutely compelling. This is not a depressing book, but it will stay with you for a long time.

Stephen Meyler, RTE Guide

Kalanithi is warm and full of wit... His writing is seamless, poetic, beautiful and transfixing. His bravery is rather astonishing at times. He is a wonderful storyteller and dizzily sweeps you along.

Avpura Times

This dying doctor's gripping memoir is a natural, honest, and unflinching account of his journey. Paul's willingness to reflect and share and not avert his eyes from death, will undoubtedly inspire and comfort others who are ill or who experience loss. The final paragraph is directed towards his infant daughter and it is breathtakingly beautiful. one to recommend to anyone and everyone.

Joanne Booy, Nudge

His book is suitable for, and deserves, a wide audience. Whilst this book is emotional and moving to read, it is beautifully written and many readers will find Paul's way of dealing with terminal illness inspirational. It is a book that I will go back to again and again for emotional support.


A sparely lyrical account of excruciated ambition. Fairly dotted with insights.

Iain Bamforth, Times Literary Supplement

You'll read this in one unforgettable afternoon.

A Little Bird

Immensely powerful and poignant.

Sunday Times

Heart-breaking memoir.


A brilliant memoir.

Daily Telegraph

The best book I've read this year.

Ann Patchett, Guardian

When Breath Becomes Air is an eloquent evocation of a life defined by success and tragedy. Paul's unravelling of unimaginable circumstances is terrifyingly real and heartbreakingly honest.

Lydia Yaritt, British Journal of General Practice

Beautifully written. Healthcare professionals and civilians alike should find much that resonates here.

Lisa Berry, Cancer Nursing Practice

[It] tops my longlist of books I'd like for Christmas.

Julian Baggini, Observer, Book of the Year

As thought-provoking as it was moving. The sheer exuberance of Kalnithi's intellectual curiosity shone through in his writing.

Katie Law, Evening Standard, Book of the Year

This is a tearjerker. Kalanithi was as skilled with words as he was with the knife.

Helen Davies, Sunday Times, Book of the Year

A powerful and compelling read.

The Economist, Book of the Year

A gripping and emotionally charged account.

Today FM, Book of the Year

Poignant, honest, brave and yes, at times, incredibly raw. A beautiful and unforgettable book.


[A] beautiful memoir. Kalanithi's eloquent and elegant writing is deeply affecting.

Daily Express, Book of the Year

[An] inspiring book.

Business Insider, Book of the Year

A thoughtful, deep and learned meditation on the meaning of life. The best book of the year

Sheer Luxe, Book of the Year

An emotional ride.

Julie Vuong, Running in Heels, Book of the Year

A book that leaves its reader full-hearted. moved and enriched by its humanity and accomplishment.

Lettie Kennedy, Observer

A fast read that won't fail to move you.


John Updike said that every writer is simply unpacking their own bag, describing writing as a way to come to terms with one's current and historical life experience. If that is the case Paul Kalanithi, in When Breath Becomes Air, is unpacking a very large bag indeed, and not just his own.

Paul D'Alton, Irish Examiner

When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

Mojo Mums

Far more than a beautifully written account of a life cut cruelly short: it is a meditation on living well.

Jane Shilling, Mail

[H]e writes with an eloquence that befits his love of the literary.

Brad Davies

An eloquent meditation on our mortality, the brain, the meaning of life, fatherhood and the doctor-patient relationship, this powerful, inspirational book should appeal to readers who are enjoying watching BBC2's current Hospital series. I couldn't put this profoundly moving memoir down - but it is not for the squeamish or faint-hearted, and may scare hypochondriacs.

Rebecca Wallersteiner, The Lady

It's not just that Kalanathi has a remarkable story to tell. The way he tells it is phenomenal. This is a superbly written and must-read autobiography - beautiful, poignant and thought-provoking.

Sam Hailes, Christianity

He writes movingly about how to make sense of a life so suddenly interrupted and what makes life worth living even as it fades away. A beautiful book about the resilience of the human spirit.


Kalanithi's candid yet artistic prose, peppered with medical terminology, conveys his life beautifully. We are taken on a journey from the nostalgic memories of his childhood in Arizona to his final days in the hospital bed. he raw and emotional portrayal of his pain and their family's grief is not an easy read, but a compelling one.

Angela Huang, Boar

A thoroughly enjoyable, epic read, When Breath Becomes Air should be at the top of everyone's 'to read' list. Paul Kalanithi beautifully bridges the gaps between philosophy, science and literature in his memoir which depicts the reality of life lived in the face of death. Kalanithi writes sublimely, elegantly and honestly. His words are spun together as though with a golden thread, and all that he writes is from the heart. His admiration for the written word shines through and the mammoth task of composing his memoir, after receiving his diagnosis, is executed exquisitely. It is a novel filled with tenderness, heartbreak and bittersweet nostalgia. It is a novel containing power, strength and beauty. And it is a novel that will stay with you long after its cover has been closed.

Lauren Molyneux, Live

Informative, emotive, honest and a stark look at the path one takes when life pulls the rug out from under you.


This book has stayed with me ever since I put it down. Absolutely extraordinary. This book is an example of how fragile and unfair life can be.

Molly Ellis

It was a really incredible read and I couldn't recommend it more.

Ella Mills, Good Web Guide

As a book detailing the insight into our own mortality, and the dedication of medical professionals who place their lives on hold to learn their craft, it's fascinating. His accounts of coming face to face with cadavers - "donors" - and performing autopsies, his experiences with patients as he gave good and bad news, his mistakes as a surgeon which caused irreparable damage coupled with his success as a physician are an incredible insight into his life's work. A melancholic read that I'd recommend to all student nurses, and anyone interested in reading the final thoughts of a doomed surgeon.

Six Out of Ten

Poignant and life-affirming, it's a devastating must-read

Woman & Home

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