Title: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee
Fun Fact: In 1953, American adults smoked on average 10 cigarettes a day
Review Summary: Elegantly written, with both scientific precision and human empathy, both historical interest and fascinating stories about people.
This “biography of cancer” starts with the first documented cases of cancer, continues through initial attempts at cures, and finishes with descriptions of the most recent discoveries. Intertwined with the historical narrative are the stories of the author’s patients, giving us just a glimpse of what it’s like to live with cancer.
For all of The Emperor of Maladies popular acclaim, this is not a book I would describe as “pop science”. That’s not to say that the science was hard to understand, just that it wasn’t simplified. So often, science books rely on analogies to convey the gist of a scientific concept, but gloss over the details. Mukherjee doesn’t compromise on the details. Instead he takes the time to explain, clearly and simply, the scientific concepts the reader needs to understand. He writes beautifully and elegantly. He uses large words naturally and precisely, never coming across as trying to hard. And while his scientifically precise choice of words is clear in the appropriate sections, his word choice in the personal stories clearly conveys his empathy and respect for his patients.
This first thing several people asked me when I said I was reading a book on cancer was “isn’t that depressing?”. Fortunately, no. Of course there were research setbacks and not every patient survives. Each of these tragedies were deeply moving. The author makes you feel very strongly the hopes and disappointments of patients, doctors, and scientists. Overall, however, this is a story of progress. A story of the amazing ways in which scientists have built on the successes of those that come before them. A story which has moved on from the early expectation that we will easily defeat cancer, but still a story that ended not with depression but with hope. Highly recommended.