THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES by Siddhartha Mukherjee

A choice for my women’s book group, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Emperor of All Maladies, a “biography” of cancer, had been on my TBR list since it was published in 2010. It was on most of the best-nonfiction lists at the end of the year. Better late than never, I suppose.

I see why this received so much acclaim. It’s huge, meticulously researched, and endnoted. it’s an exhaustive history of the disease, from ancient times through the present, and of the rocky road of treatments.

My main takeaways were that doing a book on “cancer” was perhaps too big of an undertaking for anyone, as the author makes it clear that there are SO MANY different types of cancer, and so many differing treatments, that speaking of one monolithic thing is savagely reductive. Some cancers are very treatable, others still elude solutions other than palliating the patient’s decline. I liked his paraphrase of Tolstoy’s famous line:

Normal cells are identically normal; malignant cells become unhappily malignant in unique ways. (452)

The problem with an exhaustive book, though, it that it’s also exhausting. While Mukherjee is a skilled writer, and his book often reads like a crime thriller with cancer as the villain, the sheer length and number of statistics became wearing over its 500+ pages. Also, he would also skip back in time, and not be crystal clear on the time shift, which I found confusing. A few times I tried to listen to it in an audio version while working on a jigsaw puzzle, but this didn’t work. The statistic-heavy text did not translate well as an audio experience.

I learned a lot from this book, enjoyed reading it, and was intrigued, but a narrowing of the scope and more clear timelines would have improved the reading experience for me.

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