When Breath Becomes Air is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
During his final year of residency, Paul Kalanithi began to experience frightening symptoms, but he ignored them and pushed on with his studies, despite the dangers. He was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer only a few weeks later, when it became clear that he could no longer practice medicine.
During the final months of Kalanithi’s illness, he wrote a memoir about how a doctor suddenly became the patient and the difficulties that ensued. Although heartbreaking, it’s an excellent piece of nonfiction that teaches a lot about life’s difficulties and the importance of persevering.
It’s not uncommon for these authors to have gone through hardships and grief, but the stories they tell can provide a sense of comfort to their readers, even if it’s just the knowledge that they’re not alone.
Books like When Breath Becomes Air
This is Going to Hurt, by Adam Kay
This Is Going to Hurt is a collection of diary entries from a young doctor, chronicling his first six years in the field. This nonfiction book, written by Kay, is full of wit and insight, but it also contains some heartbreaking passages about issues like stillbirth, miscarriage, and suicide.
This book also shows how junior doctors are severely mistreated and how this mistreatment has a negative impact on the lives of those who work hard to improve the lives of others.
In the vein of When Breath Becomes Air, Kay and Kalanithi have similar narratives, but Kay’s book is a lot more lighthearted.
With the current political climate, you’ll gain a new respect for front-line workers after reading both works. Both are fascinating as well as upsetting.
Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom
When Breath Becomes Air and other books like it have a lot in common with Tuesdays with Morrie. Both are concerned with a person’s waning health and the wisdom they hope to impart to others before they die. Former professor Morrie recounts Albom’s final few months to him in this story, which is told from Albom’s point of view.
ALS (also known as motor neuron disease) has been diagnosed in Morrie, and he hopes to impart some wisdom on Albom while he still has the chance. While their closeness exacerbates Morrie’s suffering, the time they spend together is priceless for both of them.
When someone is dying, it seems that some lessons in life can only be learned, and both Kalanithi and Albom write about this beautifully and in a way that is accessible to the average reader. If you’re looking for books like When Breath Becomes Air, this is a must-read.
Have you read this autobiography yet? Look at the books that are similar to Tuesdays with Morrie on our list!
The Choice, by Edith Eger
The Choice, on the other hand, is primarily about the mental anguish described in Kalanithi’s memoir. When Edith Eger was just sixteen years old, she was sent to Auschwitz, where she lost both her parents and nearly her younger sister.
Eger continues to be haunted by the trauma she felt as a survivor of the Holocaust even after the war is over and she and the other inmates are released.
For as she moves forward with her life, marrying and starting a family, it becomes clear that burying her painful memories of the concentration camp won’t help.
Moments that are both emotionally draining to read and difficult to imagine the author having to go through, as in books like When Breath Becomes Air, can be found in this memoir. In the end, the story is uplifting and teaches the reader how to keep on living in the face of tragedy, just like Kalanithi’s memoir.
Notes to Self, by Emilie Pine
Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self is a collection of essays ranging from alcoholism to infertility to sexual assault. While some of her ideas may be uncomfortable, they are also necessary to be shared.
Even when the details of what happened aren’t exactly correct, Pine believes that the way a memory appears in one’s mind is more important than the actual events themselves. Like memoirs like When Breath Becomes Air, there is a lot of heavy material to digest, but the narrative makes that information understandable.
As Pine describes some of the more agonizing aspects of being a woman and how the gender continues to fight each day regardless of this, this memoir can affect the lives of anyone, but it will likely have the greatest impact on women.
These essays, like Kalanithi’s book, contain a wealth of knowledge and provide ample opportunity for contemplation. You may want to check out Notes to Self if you’re looking for more books like When Breath Becomes Air.
Constellations, by Sinéad Gleeson
Sinéad Gleeson’s memoir, Constellations, discusses loss and pain in the same way that When Breath Becomes Air does.
It’s no secret that young Gleeson, like Kalanithi, is no stranger to being poked and prodded. Diagnosed with monoarticular arthritis as a young adolescent, she spends much of her teenage years in pain and later wonders about the body’s purpose in general.
A lot of this memoir is focused on the body’s flaws, and what that means for the person who has one, as well as the people around them.
Readers are left wondering how Gleeson could keep going after reading about her hardships, but her strength is inspiring, just like Kalanithi’s when he wrote his memoir knowing he’d die..
Twas the Nightshift before Christmas, by Adam Kay
Kay’s second non-fiction book, Twas the Nightshift before Christmas, is a must-read for anyone who enjoyed her first non-fiction book, When Breath Becomes Air. Next, Kay reflects on the Christmas holidays spent in the hospital as well as the different shifts he worked…
His first book was so popular that Kay had to tell the story of what it was like to work in the gynecology department on Christmas Day.
Although some of the material in this book may make the reader sick to their stomach at times, the reader is encouraged to continue reading because of a dark humor that is unique to medical tales like When Breath Becomes Air.
In this book, as in Kay’s previous works, there are poignant moments that serve as a gentle reminder of the wonder of childbirth, even as a woman cries out in agony, as though she is being torn to pieces. This is an excellent medical memoir.
Twelve Thousand Days, by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
After meeting her late husband, Bo, at the University of Dublin, Éilis N Dhuibhne chronicles her life in Twelve Thousand Days.
Even though Bo was nearly three decades older than Ni Dhuibhne when they fell in love, the memoir makes it sound as if they were made for one another.
Ni Dhuibhne never talks about giving up or having regrets, instead savoring the twelve thousand days they had to spend together, building a life and a family when such an idea seemed impossible at the beginning of their relationship.
This memoir, like When Breath Becomes Air, does not shy away from the difficulties of caring for someone who is ill, as it does. Eventually, as he ages, Bo is unable to do as much as he used to, and he dies in a hospital due to neglect.
Like Kalanithi’s memoir, there is a sense of unfairness, and yet memoirs such as these remind the reader that life is precious as well.
Educated, by Tara Westover
As the book’s title suggests, Educated refers to more than just Westover’s educational journey, but also the education the reader receives by reading it. As a child, Westover grew up in a family of survivalists, and only began attending school at the end of his teens.
Despite the fact that her father is convinced that the apocalypse is imminent, he does not believe in education, at least not the kind you receive in school.
While growing up, Westover is subjected to her brother’s brutality and estrangement from her family, as she begins to question the beliefs that have been instilled in her from birth.
Westover’s story is beautifully told in this beautifully written memoir. Similar to When Breath Becomes Air, this book tells a story that can only be told by someone who has been there and done that, and this book is no exception.
Please tell me you’ve already finished this moving memoir. A list of books that are similar to Educated can be found here!
The most fascinating thing about reading memoirs is getting a glimpse into someone else’s perspective on life and experiences that are vastly different from your own. As heartbreaking as When Breath Dies is, it teaches the reader an important lesson about living life to the fullest while you can and not letting anything slip through your fingers. Inspiring, emotional, brave, and insightful are all words that describe the other memoirs on this list.