Due to my new job as a writer at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute I now find myself writing on a cancer biology beat. I feel like there are two ways to cultivate a beat, either you can grow into a beat by developing the background knowledge and sources over time, or you can be tossed into a beat and have to do your homework very quickly to get up to speed. Obviously, taking a job at DFCI forced me to take my basic knowledge of cancer research to a higher level very quickly.
I still have a long way to go before I’ll feel comfortable with my cancer bio knowledge, but I’ve learned a lot from all of the great articles and books I’ve been reading over the last two months. One of the books I read on the recommendation of a colleague who said it really helped her when she started on this beat, was The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. A former DFCI fellow, Mukherjee is a physician, scientist, and writer. He wrote The Emperor of all Maladies in 2010, and it received a tremendous amount of acclaim including the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.
Very rarely in a book review do I say that I think everyone should read a book. More often I recommend books with caveats that if you aren’t interested in the subject matter, don’t like nonfiction, have trouble staying focused, etc perhaps you won’t enjoy a book as much as I did. I am recommending The Emperor of all Maladies for everyone, regardless of what you normally read or are typically interested in. This book, and Mukherjee himself, deserve every ounce of praise that has been heaped upon them. There is a lot of information in The Emperor of all Maladies, and depending on how and where you read it might take you a long time to get through. It will be worth it.
I learned so much from this book, not just about cancer but about how to tell a long, complicated narrative in a way that is factual while still compelling. The patient narrative that the book starts and ends with brings a personal touch to the book, but the physicians, activists, and researchers interwoven into the story by Mukherjee also make this a deeply personal story. I think one of the biggest achievements of this book is being able to meld science and history to provide a foundation for the cast of characters that drive home the human impact of cancer.
The Emperor of all Maladies is masterful at doing something that so much science writing on the web and elsewhere fails to do – it provides background and context for all of the claims that it makes. Granted, developments that have advanced our knowledge of cancer biology aren’t particularly controversial, but it is still necessary to illuminate the scientific process and make clear how these discoveries come to be. This book is just solid in so many ways. The structure is great, and very effectively drives the narrative forward. The personal stories add so much to the overall understanding of cancer and its impact. The science and medical information is clear and easy to understand.
There is just so much that you can learn from this book. I don’t think I’ve come across another resource that was as interesting and entertaining while being as informative about all of the issues involved in cancer than this one. I recommend it to everyone because cancer is something that affects us all, if you don’t have it yourself then you know someone who has had to face that diagnosis. The Emperor of all Maladies really is a biography of cancer, and the crash course that I think we all could stand to go through for a better understanding of this disease.