The Emperor of All Maladies

August 22, 2013 History, non-fiction, Science 20

emperorofallmaladies1Title: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee
Source: library
Rating: ★★★★★
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 too 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.


20 Responses to “The Emperor of All Maladies”

    • DoingDewey

      I agree! A lot of times I notice that I’m reading non-fiction more slowly than fiction, but that was not the case with this book!

  1. Brooke

    In theory, I want to read this. In actuality, cancer scares the holy shit out of me. Not sure if I’ll ever get over my own fears and read it. I know it helped several people deal with their own cancer which is a great testament to the book and author.

    • DoingDewey

      Although I enjoyed this, I could definitely see avoiding it for that reason. I felt like the book ended on a hopeful note,but there are parts that are less optimistic and which could make this a tough read.

  2. Amit Agarwal

    What’s amazing about this book is it makes – a highly complicated subject like cancer – simple and understandable to a reader like me with no medicinal or biological science background.
    I thank Siddhartha Mukherjee, the author of ‘The Emperor of All Maladies’for taking up a work of an epic proportion and demystifying a complex disease like cancer. I am earnestly looking forward for his next book.

    • DoingDewey

      You’re completely right! I couldn’t believe what a great job the author did of explaining such a tough topic. I also really appreciated the empathy and honesty he showed when relating his own experiences. I would love to read anything else he writes 🙂

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