Education is one of the most important themes in When Breath Becomes Air. It is central to the plot, forming the backbone of the narrative as Kalanithi works his way through high school in Kingsman, Arizona, college at Stanford and Cambridge, medical school at Yale, and finally returns to Stanford for his residency in neurosurgery. Near the end of his life, Kalanithi receives the medical degree for which he had been studying for years. Unfortunately, his disease had progressed too far by then for him to pursue a career as a neurosurgeon, and he later succumbs to his illness, having completed his training as a doctor.
Life and death are the two most important themes in this memoir, and one could argue that the entire book is a long spiritual meditation on the "twinned mysteries of death, its experiential and biological manifestations: at once deeply personal and utterly impersonal." Death appears in many forms in the memoir, first taking the shape of a cadaver in an anatomy class, then the underdeveloped bodies of a pair of premature twins, and eventually the tumors riddling Kalanithi's lungs and body. At one point, he asks, "If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?" That's just one example of the philosophical insights Kalanithi provides into the nature of life and death. It may be that he was surrounded and later hounded by death, but he was also part of a profession that has devoted itself to preserving and improving...
(The entire section is 1036 words.)