I won’t lie: at almost 600 pages (or almost 21 hours if you choose the audible option), Siddhartha Mukherjee‘s 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction is a Commitment (yes, capitalization intended!).
But commitment can come with vast rewards and, in this case, get ready for a massive infusion of exacting history, lingering mysteries, and scientific discovery. More than the undeniable erudition, the book’s most memorable moments are, of course, the true stories that Mukherjee (who is both physician and researcher) seamlessly weaves throughout – inspiring, wrenching, hopeful, driven, miraculous – of both the famous (Sidney Farber, Mary Lasker …) and the everyday important (Clara, Jimmy, Germaine …).
Before you delve into this book, however, might I suggest two others to read before which will infinitely enlighten and enhance your appreciation: Intuition by Allegra Goodman for a fictionalized overview of the machinations of a research lab (for example, Weinberg’s lab in Emperor, also in Boston, also working on turning cancer cells into normal, becomes that much more accessible) and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (neither Lacks nor her HeLa cells are mentioned by name, but her undeniable role in cancer research is referenced often).
As behemoth as the contents are, Mukherjee offers a clever, illuminating shortcut on just three pages, 463 to 465: “Recall Atossa, the Persian queen with breast cancer in 500 BC …” and from there, Mukherjee remarkably, concisely follows the course of 2500 years of cancer history and research, even projecting into 2050 when “… [t]his War on Cancer may best be ‘won’ by redefining victory.” The rest of the book’s pages explicates, elucidates, and enlightens.
Reading Emperor is certainly a personal journey (I found a relative-by-marriage on page 229!), even more resonating if you have lost anyone to the disease. While honoring the remarkable progress in cancer research, Mukherjee is insistently forthright – his table of contents follows with a sparse page of sobering data: “In the United States, one in three women and one in two men, will develop cancer during their lifetime.” And 459 pages later, he admits, “The question then will not be if we will encounter this immortal illness in our lives, but when.“
And yet Mukherjee’s honesty is never maudlin, balanced by moments of sheer wonder as, for example, he is awed by the “miraculous moment of [his] daughter’s birth” (even as he’s harvesting the rich stem cells in her umbilical cord). He follows her birth with something akin to re-birth for a “routine spectrum of survivors,” the ‘routine’-ness of their survival bearing witness to their transformation from victim to victor in the cancer war.
As we reach that final page, we can believe that when we come in contact with the disease, we, too, will hope for, even dare to expect, that our survival will be routine …