What works of literature does Paul Kalanithi reference in When Breath Becomes Air?

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jules-cordry eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Paul Kalanithi’s moving memoir When Breath Becomes Air, which Kalanithi wrote while dying of cancer in his thirties, is peppered with references to and quotes from other works of literature. Kalanithi, who was trained as a neurosurgeon, earned degrees in literature and philosophy at Stanford and Cambridge before enrolling in medical school at Yale. His lifelong love of reading was encouraged from an early age by his mother, who gave him books recommended for students planning to take the SATs. Although Kalanithi eventually decided to seek answers to his questions about the meaning of life and death in science and medicine, his memoir shows that his earlier passions remained important touchstones for him. The title itself is a reference to “Caelica 83,” a poem by Elizabethan poet Baron Brooke Fulke Greville. Kalanithi also begins each section of the book with an epigraph, quoting from T. S. Eliot’s poem “Whispers of Immortality,” the King James Bible, and Montaigne’s essay “That to Study Philosophy Is to Learn to Die.” Kalanithi’s favorite book was Sir Thomas Browne’s 1643 spiritual memoir Religio Medici (The Religion of a Doctor), which he describes his teacher Shep Nuland as having quoted on his deathbed. Other classic works Kalanithi references include (but are not limited to) Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

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When Breath Becomes Air

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