Home > Misc > An Audience with the Emperor: Sid Mukherjee’s Biography of Cancer

An Audience with the Emperor: Sid Mukherjee’s Biography of Cancer

(Note: My apologies for hijacking what is normally a movie review site, but this was too striking to let go unwritten.  The following review is about a book, not a movie; proceed with caution.)

I first saw this in a “New Yorker” review.  Then I saw it in a “Time” short list.  Then I saw it on display at Barnes and Noble.  Then I bought it.

First, a brief foray into my history of nonfiction: I started reading books besides novels (cough, teen paranormal romance) to get up to date on healthcare and medicine.  Atul Gawande’s books, praised on the SDN forums and online bloggers of medical students, struck me at first as dramatic and heavy-handed.  He employs a trick of over-humbling his experiences: by blasting the reader with accounts of his won failures, he slowly bridges a gap.  Before long, however, these techniques become redundant, and while perhaps successful, Gawande’s writing is reminiscent of a columnist rather than a novelist.  (That’s not to say he’s bad, because I did read through all his books and online archives.)

So I was hesitant to read “The Emperor of All Maladies,” despite the excellent color palette of its cover design (the parchment hued background bears only a thin red crab, with text flanking it from above and below).  However, once I flipped the first page, standing there in Barnes and Noble, something clicked.  Mukherjee was another beast altogether – the introduction alone bowled me over – his voice is something melodious, and while at times grandiose, wonderfully mature and filled with humanism.

The book itself is something of a behemoth, and as it should be; it calls itself “a biography of cancer” and thus spans centuries of history.  I was shocked at the sheer mass of the bibliography and footnotes.  Mukherjee’s research is thoroughly performed, and more importantly, he does a good job of turning it into a story.  We watch the beginnings of the ‘war on cancer,’ likened to the ‘war on terrorism’ by the NYer for its immaterialism.  In our audience with the emperor of all maladies, we watch the transformation of cancer treatment, through scientific discovery as much as through social revolutions.  The result is something epic, majestic and unparalleled in its approach and carry-through.

Overall – 5/5, I haven’t read something this smooth (or massive) in a long time.  Right now, the book is still in hardcover, so check out your local library or Amazon’s used list, or ask me to borrow my copy.  You won’t regret it.

Best regards,


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