Title: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee
Review: I bookmarked so many fantastic passages from The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, it’s hard for me to pick just one to start this review with. But really, if there’s one quote that epitomizes the things I loved best about this book, I think it would be this one:
This image — of cancer as our desperate, malevolent, contemporary doppelganger — is so haunting because it is at least party true. A cancer cell is an astonishing perversion of the normal cell. Cancer is a phenomenally successful invader and colonizer in part because it exploits the very features that make us successful as a species or as an organism.
By giving cancer a human side, both through stories of his patients and through his characterization of cancer itself, Mukherjee has written a medical history that seems to have more heart than any other that I’ve read.
The Emperor of All Maladies is, as the subtitle, suggests, a biography of cancer. The book starts as a fairly traditional medical history, beginning with our first glimpses of cancer in ancient remains through our troubled and evolving medical treatments for this tricky disease. I was fascinated to learn how our treatment for this disease as evolved (or, in many cases, not evolved) since a first treatment was shown to be at least slightly effective.
But what really makes this book stand out from other medical history books is the way Mukherjee uses his experiences as an oncology fellow, working with patients battling all types of cancer, to humanize the story. The book is filled with these unexpectedly emotional and heartfelt moments where Mukherjee shows the impact cancer treatments have on patients and on the doctors administering them in what is otherwise a pretty typical narrative look at the history of medicine.
In fact, that humanizing aspect of the book extends all the way to the main character, cancer. By characterizing the book as a “biography” rather than a “history,” Mukherjee is able to extend and use his metaphor of cancer as our malevolent doppelganger through the story and show how the very practice of medicine is an ongoing and battle of wits against an enemy we’re only beginning to understand.
Add to that the fact that Mukherjee’s writing is just beautiful, and you end up with a book that manages to be educational, heartbreaking, frustrating, and interesting throughout it’s more than 500 pages. Once you get into the narrative, this book really flies along. Don’t let the length intimidate you — grab this one the next time you get a chance. I highly doubt you’ll be disappointed.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!