Robert Pinsky in Slate:
Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir by an unknown author, became a best-seller for an unusual —almost unheard-of— reason: the quality of its writing.
By “quality” I mean excellence, but also a specific mode of narrative and meditation that Kalanathi achieves, a peculiar, calm intensity: a certain immediacy. No doubt that methodical intensity owes something to medical training. The book is, after all, a brilliant young neurosurgeon’s account of his own fatal illness. (His wife Lucy Kalanithi, also a physician, tells the end of the story in an epilogue.) A compelling subject, but the writing is crucial, in a way that derives from Kalanithi’s interest in poetry. Reviewers, including Anna Reisman in Slate, have justly praised the writing as “poetic,” but a poetry of understatement more than image, and precise abstractions— rather than heightened color—inform When Breath Becomes Air.
The title comes from a 16th century poem by Fulke Greville that demonstrates that feeling of profound calm combined with immense urgency, concentrated into just six lines:
You that seek what life is in death,
Now find it air that once was breath.
New names unknown, old names gone:
Till time end bodies, but souls none.
Reader! then make time, while you be,
But steps to your eternity.
Finality, here, demands language this direct about its subject. The poem is also direct with the reader.