Reading about science is my jam, no doubt. I’m a sucker for books about cognitive science, the history of the universe, and how science evolved. And so I eagerly attacked The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, a biographical history of cancer and the men and women whose pioneering work throughout centuries have helped uncover the world’s deadliest disease.
The good: Siddhartha Mukherjee has a vast command of the history he’s writing about, and he brings the characters to life. For much of the book, the narrative isn’t actually about the disease. In fact, he’s at his best when the “biography” is told through the relationship between a doctor and patient, or a doctor against the establishment. Those are the real feats of narrative intrigue.
The bad: Too often Mukherjee falls back on false chapter endings (“but this solution too fell short”), which the reader already suspects since we don’t have a universal cure for all cancers, for instance. The repetition of that chapter structures made it difficult (at times, but not always!) to stay interested in section of the book.
If you can get past some of the narrative drag, however, Makherjee’s reporting and historical narrative are fascinating. And since cancer touches nearly everyone in this country in one way or another, the book also serves as a primer on what we’re facing.
This isn’t a beach read. I spend three weeks digesting the stories. But it was time well spent. In fact, I’m already looking forward to starting his second book: The Gene: An Intimate History.