The reflections on life and death by the neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi in When Breath Becomes Air carry much more weight and size than the book itself. The reader is asked to ruminate along with Kalanithi on a variety of heavy subjects, such as grief, identity, and the lines between doctor and patient.

That isn’t to say, however, that the book is a difficult read on a stylistic level. No—in fact, Kalanithi writes with a conversational, down-to-earth tone, so much so that it almost sounds as if he’s there sitting in the room with you, telling you his story.

Due to this style, it isn’t surprising to learn that Kalanithi had a penchant for writing and a love for literature, and perhaps one of the most wondrous achievements of his short - lived life is how he manages to bridge the gap between the study of science and the study of philosophy and literature in vcWhen Breath Becomes Air.

Graduating with a BA and MA in English literature and a BA in human biology, Kalanithi’s education showcases an unlikely pairing that becomes a common theme throughout the book—he manages to invert concepts we often think of as opposites. The two biggest are “the arts” and “the sciences,” but also “the patient” and “the doctor.” Throughout his memoir, he flips between these roles, and exists in the “in between” spaces of these ideas to better showcase their depth and meaning. It is not often that a doctor of neurosurgery must be admitted as a patient to the same hospital he once worked at—though it’s not every day a neurosurgeon has dreams of becoming a writer. You can’t leave this memoir without feeling like we’ve all lost something special in Kalanithi’s passing.

The best stories involve complications and how the heroes of stories confront them. Kalanithi’s memoir is no different, though this time both you and Kalanithi know how his story is going to end, and this knowledge adds a particular gravity to his determination and reflections throughout the book. I’m generally not one to read memoirs, but it’s for this reason I heartily recommend When Breath Becomes Air to any reader of the same mind, looking to branch out and explore a genre they don’t normally read. Slim and compact—Kalanithi’s reflections cut right to the heart of difficult subjects, exploring grief, life, death and chasing your dreams—all told in a concise, poignant manner.

This book is available in regular print and as a Book Club Bag (10 copies) at the Yankton Community Library. You can also access the e-book or e-audio versions through Libby or Overdrive. n