Thursday, January 24, 2013

Book Review: The Emperor of All Maladies

The Emperor of All Maladies is the book that you wished your doctor would write to you about cancer. If your doctor were a cancer expert and a bit of a poet at heart. In this book, Siddhartha Mukherjee writes a book that is both sprawling and focused at the same time as he traces the course of our understanding and treatment of cancer from the coining of the word to 2009's genomic studies of cancer cells. This won the Pulitzer Prize for good reason -- it's almost perfectly calibrated to include the human element with the scientific studies, the past with the present and a little of the future. Only in a few spots did I feel Mukherjee was going on too long, in particular with a stretch about the economics of fundraising for cancer. But once you get past that spot early on he tends to spend the exact right amount of time on topic after topic. I'm impressed with how he mixes in the technical word for a procedure or cell type but also takes care to explain so those unfamiliar with the technical word can understand. Being familiar with these words, I'm not sure how this reads for someone unfamiliar with them, but it seems to me that he explains without talking down very successfully. Can this type of book exist for a topic that is not as inherently compelling as cancer? I hope so. Its size may be daunting, but this book wins the best seal of approval for science writing I can give: I will assign it to students to read in biochemistry seminar this spring.

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