Posted by: Corri van de Stege | August 29, 2011

Poetry of illness – The Emperor of All Maladies

Siddhartha Mukherjee - PopTech 2010 - Camden, ...

Image by kk+ via Flickr

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.

The book was the winner of the 2011 Pullitzer Prize for general non fiction and has had raving reviews,  for example the Independent writes:

‘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.



  1. I do enjoy non-fiction books, in fact, I highly recommend Yalom’s “Staring at the sun”, but a book on cancer scares the hell out of me. I hope I will never need to read it or feel like reading it. 😦

  2. Ally – it reads like a biography of cancer, it’s about the history, how it was written about and dealt with from approx AD 200 onwards and it is not scary. I had exactly the same reaction at first, but it is strangely engrossing and reads like a detective story, written by an excellent writer! One tends to forget how recent some medical advances are though – and how lucky we are that there is at least a great degree of understanding about what it is even if the search for a final ‘cure’ is still on.
    I will definitely follow up your suggestion of Staring at the Sun – it rings a bell somewhere!

  3. I am sure it is a well written book, but I am not at ease with the subject…

  4. I heard the author speak on a tv channel called Book TV here in the U.S and rushed right out to read the book. I haven’t read it yet but I expect to be impressed when I do!

  5. Kathleen: it’s just been entered for the long list of Guardian books of the year as well. It is really very good and not morbid at all: he’s a genuinely good writer who is able to analyse and research the history of what we know and how we know what we know now…. if you can follow this. I think it’s an excellent book on the history and science of cancer and takes away the mystery of what it is.

  6. […] the science books I have only read Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies – which is a book that reads like fiction, with cancer the main […]

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