When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This unfinished memoir by a neurosurgeon who died of cancer documents his decline and suffering along with his aspirations and accomplishments during the period of his diagnosis and treatment. It contains a plethora of medical information that will be fascinating to those into brain science. Despite this, I cannot give it a high rating for two reasons: it is unnecessarily depressing and pretentious. The author almost wallows in self-pity at the unfairness and the suffering of his disease, and indeed it is a great loss not only to him, his friends, family, and colleagues but also to future patients who are denied his skill. He was no doubt a highly skilled and dedicated doctor, a fact I know only because he repeatedly tells us so. He tells us so in flowery, overwritten prose stuffed full of literary quotes, esoteric vocabulary, and accounts of his sacrifice and the admiration of colleagues. In addition he takes it upon himself to tell the reader what is important in life and how to live it as though he were an oracle or philosopher. Reading this I am reminded of the Smothers Brothers skit where the psychiatrist wears a badge that says M.D. and points to it while identifying himself as “me, deity.” The long epilogue by his wife places him on an even higher pedestal than he has placed himself.

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