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When Breath Becomes Air

Length: 5 hrs and 35 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (196 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Number-one New York Times best seller. Pulitzer Prize finalist.

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 New York Times Book Review
  • People
  • NPR
  • The Washington Post
  • Slate
  • Harper’s Bazaar
  • Time Out New York
  • Publishers Weekly
  • BookPage

Finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction and the Books for a Better Life Award in Inspirational Memoir.

At the age of 36, 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. 

©2016 Paul Kalanithi (P)2016 Random House Audio

What the critics say

"Rattling, heartbreaking, and ultimately beautiful, the too-young Dr. Kalanithi's memoir is proof that the dying are the ones who have the most to teach us about life." (Atul Gawande)
"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 is one of a handful of books I consider to be a universal donor - I would recommend it to anyone, everyone." (Ann Patchett)
"Narrator Sunil Malhotra is faithful to the straightforward tone of Paul Kalanithi's memoir.... Cassandra Campbell narrates the epilogue by Kalanithi's wife, recounting his final moments in a smooth, empathetic voice that is certain to bring tears. When Breath Becomes Air may be unsentimental, but it is profoundly affecting." ( AudioFile)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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Must read to have a deep understanding

Helped me in understanding the main priorities of my life which needs to be dealt with!!!

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Very insightful and emotional.

The narrator was terrific. I have a hard time reading, so it was delightful to be able to enjoy such a compelling book in audio format.

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Kudos to Dr. Kalanithi!

To have written such an amazing book and told such a heart wrenching story in his dying days is remarkable. His portrayal of life is both sombre and uplifting. Listening to this book will allow you to put your life’s issues into perspective and strive for more. He sounds like a truly amazing person.

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Brilliant..

thank you Paul for your courage to complete this inspiring memoir while facing death and and Lucy for your courageous support and love in sharing your experience with the world. Paul's lives on through each letter in his book

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Absolutely outstanding book.

When breath becomes air is a gripping, emotional exploration of life and death, written by a man who chose to find all the positives that he could in a life of stress, challenge, and misfortune. I love this man from his writing alone, I wish I could have met him.

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A book worth reading

Heartbreaking yet courageous, extremely powerful yet soft and gentle, emotionally provoking, and unequivocally authentic read.

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Profound and Inspiring

I have read a lot of medical memoirs but none compare to Paul Kalanithi. He perfectly captures the unconditional call to medicine many of us in the field feel; while inspiring you with his acceptance not fear of death, and his unbending courage. I have reread this many times and still awe at quotable phrases of wisdom. #Audible1

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Great Read

This is a great read. Real life lesson. Also show the courage and dedication to its profession. #Audible1

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Fantastic audiobook

Among its many outstanding themes, this true story offers great perspective into terminal illness, life and death.
#Audible1

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  • Di
  • 2018-09-10

Such a gift

This book is soooo brutally honest and written with passion. Truly everyone at some point should read and or listen too. I found the audio version even more impactful.
Brilliant

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  • Celia
  • 2016-05-31

Inspirational yet Existential Crisis Inducing

I found the foreword almost unbearably flowery and was unable to follow Kalanithi's discussion of the evolution of his religious beliefs in the face of his illness. Aside from this, however, this book was inspirational, informative, and deep. One caveat, however: this one can be quite the inducer of existential crises. Or at least it was for me.

18 of 18 people found this review helpful

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  • A. Potter
  • Washington D.C.
  • 2016-01-16

Phenomenal book!

Any additional comments?

I deeply connected with neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi’s search for meaning in his young life, as a boy torn between literature and science; during medical school as he carefully opens up cadavers and ponders their former human selves; and after his diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer, as he confronts his decline at the peak of his career and the birth of his daughter, a precious girl who brings so much joy to his final days. I’m thankful Paul found a way to share his love of writing and prodigious talents with the world, especially under such harrowing circumstances. The world is richer place because of it. I’ll carry this book in my mind for a long time to come.

123 of 130 people found this review helpful

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  • Denise
  • 2016-01-21

How this book was recommended

This book was auto-recommended to me by audible because of the types of books I like to read. I, however, think it should be recommended to everyone. This is a book that is not only poignant, touching, and painful; it is a book that is full of love, insight, courage and humility. One I know I will read again and again. May I recommend that you read it at least once?

108 of 118 people found this review helpful

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  • Shermeen
  • 2016-01-21

Life changing

It's the middle of the night, and I am still in tears as I have just finished one of the most profound books I have ever read. I fear I will never have the dignity and grace that Paul had, and continues to have in my mind. This book is vulnerable, beautiful, and just so completely honest. You will not forget this book. Amazing delivery as well. I know what this world has lost.

113 of 124 people found this review helpful

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  • W Perry Hall
  • 2016-02-18

Memoir, Message, A Morning Glory


As memorable as it is moving for not only the charm and impact of Dr. Paul Kalanithi's writing but also his impressive might to complete the memoir's manuscript maugre the malignancy that ultimately ended his life before he finished writing.

Though I'd never presume as much, I try to maintain my faith that a reason exists for the premature death of someone like Paul Kalanithi, who was able and devoted to giving so much. That is to say, I must have hope that Dr. Kalanithi, a mid-30s highly respected neurosurgeon with a loving wife and infant daughter, was empowered by his disease, as the best of empyreal messengers, to contemplate, conceive and write his message in a way that reminds its readers that we are mortal, a reminder not in a melancholic or morbid sense, but as eyeing a morning glory, as we move forward on the road to the rest of our lives.

As I see his message, we will die, but we can live a meaningful life by giving of ourselves to make an impact on others, by trying to improve those around us by doing good deeds and by art, such as by creating through writing. In this way, we may live on, as Dr. Kalanithi has managed through this sublime memoir.

I found his wife's epilogue particularly touching in describing the last couple of weeks, when he could write no more, and his monumental endeavor to write this memoir.

38 of 42 people found this review helpful

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  • CHET YARBROUGH
  • LAS VEGAS, NEVADA, United States
  • 2016-01-23

A LIFE OF DECENCY

“When Breath Becomes Air” memorializes a life of decency. It is not a perfect life. It is a short life of comfort and accomplishment, infused with stress and failure. Paul Kalnithi is the son of Indian immigrants who grows up in Kingman, Arizona. Kingman is a town of less than 29,000 people lying between Las Vegas luck and Phoenix senior living.

Those who choose to listen to “When Breath Becomes Air” will look at life differently. Not because of belief in God or the fallibility of human beings, but because we all live between Las Vegas luck and Phoenix senior living. Death is a part of life whether it is an end or a beginning. Education makes a difference and no life of comfort and accomplishment is without stress and failure. The best one hopes for is to live and leave life as decently as Paul Kalnithi who dies at 37.

95 of 107 people found this review helpful

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  • C. Huang
  • los angeles, ca
  • 2016-01-23

Amazing book

This book brought me to tears many times. It's rare that we find someone so eloquent with such a tragic story and wonderful insights that is able to verbalize their findings so well. I recommend it to all my friends. As a fellow physician, it really struck a cord with me.

48 of 54 people found this review helpful

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  • Dusty S. Human
  • 2016-01-16

Love and Beauty in Extremis

The author expresses, lived, and has shared how meaning can transform tragedy into a deep transcendence of being that shimmers. As a hospice chaplain, I could not help but be awed by the clarity and beauty of love, vulnerability, and honesty that has been lived by the author and his family.

52 of 60 people found this review helpful

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  • Hannah
  • 2016-01-15

Insanely Good / Will be my favorite book of 2016

This book will be hard to top, seriously so good. Should be required reading for all medical staff, but also for all non-medical staff.

49 of 57 people found this review helpful

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  • Narine Harrylall
  • 2016-01-20

Amazing

you get lost in his words, vsualizing these brief glimpses of a brave soul. Simply beautiful.

34 of 40 people found this review helpful

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  • tinkerbeal
  • 2017-07-07

Doctor-patient relationship

Good book to understand the trials and tribulations of the singular relationship between the doctor and the physician and when a doctor becomes a patient. As most autobiographies, it does not tell the whole story...if it had been less of a tribute and more honest, it could have been very powerful. The end by the wife is unnecessary and not a fitting ending to the book....the author himself leaves an open ending, which is much more fitting.