I read this book when it first came out in 2010; I was taking a class on cancer biology at the time and my professor recommended it. I ended up rereading it in the first part of this year for a graduate class on science communication and I loved it just as much the second time around.
Mukherjee is an MD/PhD who treats and studies cancer. At some point in his career, he realized his patients’ need to understand the diseases that were ravaging them and eventually that turned into this book. It’s a deep and beautiful exploration of cancer – its history, its treatments, the molecular basis for cancer, all well placed within the social and scientific movements pushing or hindering progress.
This is, more so than most books I review, not a book for everybody. Mukherjee is a beautiful, incredibly informative writer, but he tends towards the long and complex. It’s not that he’s confusing, but it’s a lot of information delivered in a very ‘literature’ style. Lots of $2 words and long compound sentences. I absolutely adore this style; it lets things develop slowly without becoming boring and definitely encourages the reader to pause and think at least once a paragraph. It’s elegant and ideal for slow digestion of ideas. And it’s a long book – over 600 pages (with references). Both times I read it, I could read no more than a chapter a day.
That being said, the style really works for the ‘story’ of cancer. It’s a complex family of diseases with a long and often tragic history and Mukherjee approaches it with a mix of compassion, professional detachment, personal stories, and medical experience that is just the perfect approach for a non-fiction exploration of a serious disease. There’s a grave respect for the patients and a sorrow for those who have passed without ever letting the emotions become the story. It’s a gentle, respectful approach, empathetic yet focused. I would feel comfortable recommending this book to someone whose life has been touched by cancer.
Mukherjee does a superb job of explaining the science layer by layer, each chapter a complete story in and of itself, building on the preceding chapters. He brings to life the scientists, patients, and activists who brought about breakthroughs in understanding and medicine, as well as telling stories from his own training and practice as a doctor.
Again – an extraordinarily slow read for me. It takes time to process what he’s saying but it truly allows the reader to delve into and understand an incredibly complicated subject. Mukherjee, of course, knows his stuff, but what I’m always impressed by is his ability to convey nuance and ambiguity. Cancer biology is my field and nothing irritates me more than science communication, especially in the health fields, that has a complete lack of nuance. Biology is complicated and not easily understood and I so appreciate the lengths Mukherjee has gone to to convey that.
I am also happy to say that not even ten years later, there have been a few major breakthroughs that would need to be included in an updated version. Emperor is not outdated; it’s just not up-to-date anymore. But this is really good news!
This is one of my absolute favorite nonfiction books and a lot of that is because both the style and the subject are exactly suited to my taste. I love deep dives into things – I’m much more of an overthinker than an underthinker, that’s for sure – and the molecular basis of cancer is right up my alley. There’s nothing about this book I dislike, but I do think it is not to everybody’s taste – if you’re one fence, read a few pages on Google Books or at a bookstore. Mukherjee’s style is very consistent.
If you love long, elegant, and intricate writing or if you’re looking for an excellent, compassionate nonfiction on either cancer or molecular and cellular biology, I highly, highly, highly recommend this book. However, if a 600+ page tome* is not your jam, or if you like your nonfiction to be straightforward and no-frills, then, alas, this may not be the book for you.
*Mukherjee also writes articles for The New Yorker and a few other places, so if the length is the major deterrent, do look around for some of his other pieces!