Book Series: What Is A Life Worth Living?


The Dermatologist Book Series has included several nonfiction works that attempt to explain human behavior, examining how and why we act the way we do through research and anecdotes. This week’s recommendation When Breath Becomes Air, from Joel Schlessinger, MD, FAAD, FAACS, in practice in Omaha, Nebraska, is a personal account of Dr Paul Kalanithi life after his diagnosis and untimely death from cancer. In his memoir, Dr Kalanithi comes to terms with his mortality and questions common assumptions taken for granted on how we define our identity and how we perceive time.

“While there isn’t a happy conclusion to it, the exercise of seeing what may happen to us at any time in our lives is important,” said Dr Schlessinger. “We assume that time is a given, but this book tests that assumption. I was impacted by it and feel other doctors, both newer and more established, will find some parallel to their lives.”

when breath books air

At the age of 36, following the completion of multiple degrees in literature and medicine and near the end of his neurosurgery fellowship, Dr Kalanithi received a diagnosis of metastatic stage IV non-small-cell lung cancer. Forced to confront his own mortality and reconsider how he shaped his identity, Dr Kalanithi contemplates his prior experiences with death in medical school, describing the tension between respecting the bodies of the deceased while having to cut them into pieces, and residency, where he witnessed the death of his patients. In addition, he describes his struggle with crossing the divide from doctor to patient. Ultimately, When Breath Becomes Air asks us to consider what makes life worth living, how we define ourselves in the face of death, and what the future means for those with terminal illnesses.

Random House published When Breath Becomes Air in 2016. The book contains a forward by Abraham Verghese and an epilogue by Lucy Kalanithi, Dr Kalanithi’s wife, documenting the last few days of his life. When Breath Becomes Air was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and PEN Center USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction and was on the New York Times bestseller list. Print, Ebook, and unabridged audio versions are available on the Penguin Random House website and Amazon.

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Past installments of the Book Series:

Book Series: Dermatologists Reveal Must-Read Books
Book Series: Tips for Improved Time Management
Book Series: Considering Behavioral Economics
Book Series: Must Reads for Competitive Achievers