Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Emperor of all maladies: A biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

It isn’t often that a book on cancer is lauded as “A pleasure to read”, “beautiful”, “elegant” and “a thriller”. But these words are common among reviewers describing the 2011 pulitzer prize winner for General Nonfiction, The Emperor of all Maladies: A biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

Mukherjee tackles the subject of cancer as if he were writing a biography. He tracks the history of the disease for more than five thousand years. The ancient Egyptians wrote about the disease, as did the Persians. The early attempts at surgically removing cancerous tissue are explained. Horrifying as it is, the release of mustard gas in Italy during World War II led pharmacologists to consider the use of chemicals to fight cancers, and chemotherapy was born. Most of the book deals with the past 50 years.

But this book is not just a collection of facts. David Rieff writes, “Mukherjee has done something that should not have been possible; he has managed to write an authoritative history of cancer for the general reader, while always keeping the experiences of cancer patients in his heart and in his narrative. At once learned and skeptical, unsentimental and humane, … a noble book”. This is a must read for anyone wanting to understand the disease, how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go in the fight against the emperor of all maladies.

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