Book Review: Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes, I’m left bewildered by the gullibility of the general public. I don’t mean this cruelly, but, you know, I get a little upset when I see certain books become ‘bestsellers’ because these books are, frankly, pandering to the whims of readers and peddling the snake oils they want to buy.

James Nestor’s book, ‘Breath’ isn’t quite a snake oil, but it isn’t very far away from it. It’s not so much that the stuff he’s writing about is ‘fake’. It’s more that he presents the book in such a classic style as though it were. It’s the standard routine – tell a personal story, sprinkle a few facts or pseudo-facts, tell a ton of ‘personal story’ anecdotes of yester-year and – voila! – you have a hot elixir and customers with the cheque books open.

As I say, the actual facts about breathing Nestor presents aren’t wrong (though I’m suspicious of the extreme conclusions he draws from them). Most are solid facts, actually; so solid that they’re already well known and ‘out there’ in the public domain. This does feel a little bit cheating to me. In my early stages of learning to be a commercial writer, there were plenty of packages out there promising to show you how to write a book in 24 hours. They all revolved around fast google searches on some topic or other, download your information, rewrite it up quickly, edit, package up and ship out. Nestor’s book feels like a glorified version of this – just done with professional aplomb and considerable care.

But the fact remains, this stuff is already out there and it doesn’t take an eagle-eyed reader to spot that from the evidence Nestor provides himself. Almost every anecdote he gives about the ‘life-changing’ results of learning to breathe correctly come from several decades in the past. In cases, more like a century or more. The decades-old stories are the more science-based of the tales and, if there’s one thing that scientists do, it’s share their findings. This isn’t new information the author is giving us: it’s all on google. What’s more, Nestor boils ALL of it down to one single idea: breathe through your nose, never your mouth. It takes a book to say that. Honestly.

If ‘Breath’ was written by a hack, I would now be giving it a one-star rating – or two at most. But Nestor is no hack. His style is attractive and, importantly, he does have a personal story to tell is which is interesting. There’s a clear bias towards the spiritual and it feels like Nestor would rather be telling this spiritual journey rather than the physiological one. He plumps for something in between – a chronological personal story with smatterings of information along the way laced with anecdotes all but designed to make you forget that the message being told is a simple one. It’s an interesting concoction of ideas and, at the very least, it does collect research all together in one neat package which means you don’t have to go googling all over the place to find what you want to know. That, along with an appendix of breathing exercises to try for yourself, ties the bow on this pretty little package.

Is ‘Breath’ a classic then? No, definitely not. But it is a book which might find its way on to coffee tables without causing the host too much embarrassment. It’s also the kind of book which you might give to someone as a Christmas or birthday gift when you can’t think of anything decent to give them. But that’s about it. If you’re serious about learning the benefits of breathing well, you’re better off going to the sources themselves. Or even just go to your average GP or sports specialist. Chances are, they’ll already know this stuff.



Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

His latest book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, will be published by Histria Books in 2022.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at dkpowell.contact@gmail.com. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways,  and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.

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