The emperor of all books

The Emperor Of All Maladies

The Emperor Of All Maladies

It’s with a heavy heart that I’ve just closed the book on a passionate three week relationship.  Literally. It was not just any book but the most gripping, fascinating tale I’ve read in a while.

It had me reading under the table, resenting human beings who wanted to interact with me and is the reason I installed a flashlight app on my smartphone, so I could read it under the covers.

It’s called “The Emperor of All Maladies, a biography of cancer” and was written by cancer physician and researcher Siddharrtha Mukherjee. It understandably won the Guardian First Book Award of 2011 as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction that year.

I picked up this hefty 472 page stunner by accident three weeks ago. I expected it to be a one night stand, a passing encounter, the kind you strike up in a doctor’s waiting room where you speed read a couple of chapters, get an idea of the story and never really think about it again.

I was staying with someone who I’m sure would not like to be named but has great taste in books, apparently. Anyway, this gem of a book was lying around and I’m a curious girl. I like to know what others read, you know… why they picked that book over all others. And this one was striking. Black, with a menacing-looking blue crab on the front and a long blue and orange title scrawled across the top in some sort of cursive script.

So I started taking a sneaky peak at it, leaning against a wall, my mind on something else. Flicking through the pages, the reviews were raving, the opening quote by Susan Sonntag beautifully chosen, the author’s note swift and compelling and then, the opening scene hit me in the face. It was the story of Carla but it could have been me, you or anyone else for that matter. Cancer strikes at random, hits hard and sometimes kills. I wanted to know more.

That’s the magic of this book. Basing the story around real people, Mukherjee manages to deliver serious and precise historical and medical information in a structured manner that makes total sense to lay people. And most importantly he makes the reader care.

The book deserves its tag of “biography” as it gives cancer a personality and a history. Filled with tales of personal courage, scientific bravery and tragedy, it’s a rollercoaster ride through thousands of years of trying to control the uncontrollable and to harness the illness that makes a mockery of man’s wish for immortality, achieving its own eternal survival in the process.

It does get a little complex to read at times when the more difficult topics of genetics and microbiology are laid out. But the explanations are logical and clear and if you stick with it, the ride is thrilling, each chapter leaving you wanting to know more.

I’m not going to spoil it for anyone by going into too much detail, it’s bound to be a very personal read for anyone who picks it up. But I will say that I feel more educated having read it. More in tune with my body, my biology, what my cells are doing inside of me every second.

I do not view “cancer” the same, I’m at the same time more hopeful and more hopeless. Less worried about lumps and bumbs, more worried about chromosomes and the lack of communication between the scientific and pharmaceutical communities. More fanatical about people not smoking, giving up smoking and not starting in the first place!

And certainly, my views on notions like “The Cure For Cancer” have altered dramatically.

When a book makes me simultaneously aspire to the bravery of those within and to one day displaying the same skill as the author, I’m left with no choice but to put it on my Read It Now list. So read it now! You won’t regret it.


About monicaheck
Monica Heck is a bilingual freelance writer and journalist based in Dublin, Ireland.

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