Before leaving Leipzig my son asked if I was interested in reading a book about cancer. Mmmmm I was not too sure about that, as I am not generally someone who delves deep into symptoms of diseases and everything that might go wrong, unless I actually suffer from something that I cannot quite explain. That’s when I google and find out that my lower back pain, say, could have a number of causes and that if I’m lucky it’ll just disappear by itself. That usually cheers me up enough to let go of the topic.
The book he handed me was ‘The Emperor of all Maladies’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a hefty ‘biography of cancer’ (470 pages plus references and appendices) with the recommendation that it was extremely well written and an example of excellent science writing. I remembered reading a review a while ago, which also recommended the book. I pushed it into my suitcase and as today is a freezing cold bank holiday, and not very attractive in terms of working in the garden, I got it out and have started reading it.
It is amazingly catching, there are no dry scientific and obscure references, and the writing is very fluent, as if Mukherjee is telling us a story. Which he is, of course: the story of cancer.
‘This is a story of pioneers and mavericks; of serendipity, risk-taking and wild
leaps of faith; of meetings of minds that changed medical history and obsessive
experiments conducted in solitude. It is a story of inspiration found in
bathtubs, blizzards and on night-time walks; one in which the studios of Titian
have their place: artists assisted student Andreas Vesalius in creating his
atlas of anatomy that would tumble Claudius Galen’s theory of humours, its
“black bile” long considered the origin of cancer). As does a Japanese painter
of birds and fish whose illustrations helped bring Greek cytologist George
Papanicolaou’s discoveries – as in the Pap smear – out of obscurity.’
If you are interested in good non-fiction or science writing, then this is well worth getting hold of. I am not far enough into it yet to write a review, but I’m sure the above is recommendation enough.