2010, Books, Non-Fiction

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (2010) by Siddhartha Mukherjee

This is a far-reaching, thorough but page-turning history of cancer. It is a remarkably readable book and I have trouble imagining that I will read another history of cancer, at least for some time, simply because this one was so readable it’s hard to imagine another book about the same subject would be this “easy” to read. (I put “easy” in quotes because, of course, it’s not a fun read.)

I learned so much from this book. But perhaps the one thing that sticks out more than any of the others is how often an important discovery was ignored. Time and again in the history of the treatment of cancer, important discoveries were made by people who were, essentially, uncool (i.e. not among the medical elites of the time) and so ignored. I assume this has happened throughout the history of medicine because it’s a common thing in other disciplines. It’s such a normal human frailty but in some ways that makes it all the more frustrating and sad, especially in a subject like this. It’s also a good reminder to anyone who looks at history backwards (who thinks things are preordained, or that people in the past can predict the future), we’re social animals who regularly put fitting and behaving conventionally over risk taking and innovation (more often than not).

But the book is just packed with information, both historical and technical. Some people have said this book has too much information and I don’t agree. I get that, when it gets to the drugs in the final section, there is a lot to take in. But would you prefer he didn’t explain how they work? Would you prefer he stretch it out another 100+ pages with more personal stories?

I have two criticisms: the first is that book feels quite American-centric when the story moves to the 20th century. The most time we spend in another country other than the US and the UK is a scandal in South Africa. Surely, some other notable development in cancer in the 20th century occurred outside of the US (and the few UK discoveries he mentions).

The other criticism has nothing to do with the author: I suspect a lot of information in the final chapter is already out of date. This book is now 12 years old. So if you’re going to read it now I would look for a newer edition or see if you can hold out for one if there’s one coming in the next few years.

But, honestly, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year. If I went back and looked it would be on my short list of best books of 2010, I’m sure. Magisterial is a word that feels appropriate.


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