Book Review: The Emperor of All Maladies

This was a great book. The first several hundred pages were awesome. I will, however, ding it a little bit for dragging on a bit towards the end.

It moves in three major arcs. The first major arc is treatment, spanning bloodletting, surgery, and chemotherapy. This arc kicks into second gear when it becomes intertwined with the history of the modern cancer movement, starting with Sidney Farber and Mary Lasker. The second arc is much briefer, and goes through the various prevention efforts, including the war on tobacco. The final arc is essentially the culmination, in which a genetic understanding of the cancer cell leads to what looks like the beginnings of the cure, via gene therapy. Intertwined through all of these arcs are Mukherjee's personal dealings with his own cancer patients, which gives the book a human element.

As a reminder, this book took forever for me to finish. It is not a short read. It drags towards the end. It begins to feel as if you're just going from one discovery to the next, one random doctor to another. But overall, it's very edifying.

A couple of key insights, outside of the random factoids. One. Medical progress comes in fits and starts. A lot of what we've discovered about cancer seems to have come through almost accidental discoveries that almost get overlooked. Two. Organization is key. The modern cancer movement didn't seem to really get its legs under it until Farber and Lasker basically built the American Cancer Society into a well-oiled machine. Three. Cancer is scary, I really would rather not ever get it.

That's about it. I wish I had a witty and insightful review of this book, but it's hard. This is not a particularly emotional book, despite the gravity of the subject. Mukherjee moves very quickly through the subject matter, and in so doing, makes the book feel oddly light. In the few places where he tries to tell a human story, you can tell that he is clearly not in his element, and is - if anything - trying to mimic the feel of something more serious. He is much more at home going through the annals of cancer's history, describing the import of this discovery or that discovery. If anything, this book is more interesting for its compact navigation of what would otherwise be an even longer and denser subject matter.

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