book-reviews

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

by Siddhartha Mukerjee

Rating: ★★★

Mukherjee certainly taught me a great deal about cancer, and the history of cancer treatment. The book's best quality is its wide-ranging, accessible summary of a very complicated subject, in terms a layman can understand and relate to. My own understanding of cancer (prior to reading) seems to have been stuck somewhere back in the 1980s, and it is heartening to read that there are practical oncogene inhibition therapies being actively developed, showing real reward from the basic biological understanding of cancer that proved so elusive in its previous history.

So, as an overview of cancer, definitely solid. However, as a piece of writing, it's not quite right. Mukherjee seems a bit scattershot at times, as he picks up various narratives from the history of cancer treatment, tunes them up and plays them so they're a somewhat soppy story -- before then ditching them and jumping off to the next one. Of course, history is complex, and no one narrative will weld all his pieces together, but the combined effect of so many different-yet-similar attempts to tug at your heartstrings is that you just start scowling cynically. And I didn't want to do that! There are some genuinely interesting characters and achievements in here which deserve appreciation. Perhaps it would be better for the greater of these to be given more intimate treatment in their own histories.

Some broad highlights: the US National Cancer Institute is played to be almost from the outset a primarily bureaucratic organisation; lots of specialists benefited from essentially being the first person who could possibly notice an application of a drug; deciding whether you're saving lives from cancer is complicated (actually, I really liked the epidemiology section) and drug companies that have potential cancer cures are not necessarily always interested in developing them.

Worth reading to get you up to date on the topic without too much pain, but without any particular benefit outside of this.