Brain Pickings

2011 Nonfiction Pulitzer: A Biography of Cancer

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Yesterday, the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced and, as always, we were most fascinated by the highly contested nonfiction category, which is as much a measure of good writing as it is a reflection of the era’s cultural concerns. This year’s winner was The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Columbia professor of medicine Siddhartha Mukherjee — a thorough, eloquent and eye-opening medical and sociocultural history of the ubiquitous disease, from its origin to the first recorded cases to modern medicine’s ongoing struggle to find effective treatment.

When I started writing this book, I thought of cancer as a disease. But as I wrote more and more about it, it seemed as though it was not just a disease but something that envelops our lives so fully that it was writing about someone. It was like writing about an alter personality, an illness that had a psyche, a behavior, a pattern of existing.” ~ Siddhartha Mukherjee

The book begins with the stories of pathologist Sidney Farber and philanthropist Mary Lasker, who is credited with launching the war on cancer by urging scientists and the government to race for a cure of the little-understood killer.

The second half of the narrative shifts from the cultural to the scientific context of humanity’s battle with the disease, focusing on the incremental yet gamechanging discoveries of a various brilliant scientists over the past half-century as the scientific community raced to understand how cell become cancerous in order to better address prevention and treatment.

So fascinating is the book that one dedicated fan used its narrative to extract a visual timeline of cancer from 1950 to the present:

With its blend of cultural anthropology, rigorous research and genuine empathy, The Emperor of All Maladies is, as the Pulitzer unequivocally implies, a pinnacle of fine nonfiction that oscillates between the profound cultural distress of a presently incurable disease and the relentless scientific exhilaration embedded in the very possibility of unraveling this great and all-consuming mystery.

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Everything Is Going To Be OK: Aesthetic Anesthesia for the Soul

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An antidote to cynicism by way of typography, or what it’s all right to have everything you want.

In a world brimming with cynicism, it’s a rare and wonderful occasion to find an oasis of sincerity and optimism. That’s exactly what we found in the recently released Everything Is Going To Be OK — an absolutely lovely pocket-sized anthology of positive artwork from a diverse lineup of indie artists, designers and illustrators, including Brain Pickings favorites Marian Bantjes, Marc Johns and Mike Perry. What makes the book exceptional is that it manages to take existential truisms we’d ordinarily roll our eyes at, reframe them in a context of honesty and simplicity, and deliver them through such outstanding graphic design that the medium itself becomes part of the delight of the message.

Everything Is Going To Be OK is reminiscent of the lovely Live Now! project and Mico Toledo’s Music Philosophy, an absolute treat of design and a priceless existential reminder of what we too often forget: Life is beautiful, our fellow human beings are good, and happiness is within our reach.

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NASA + William Shatner: Space Shuttle’s Legacy

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This month, NASA announced that after 30 years of spaceflight and over 130 missions, its Space Shuttle Program fleet will be retiring to an earthly resting place. To commemorate the fleet’s remarkable legacy, NASA produced this fantastic short documentary, narrated by none other than William Shatner:

An idea born in unsettled times becomes a feat of engineering excellence. The most complex machine ever built to bring humans to and from space and eventually construct the next stop on the road to space exploration.”

The film comes mere days after public outrage over proposed NASA budget cuts, along with NASA’s own appeals, finally appeared to have moved Congress to approve a healthier funding grant of $18.5 billion. Meanwhile, ordinary NASA fans continue to churn out extraordinary tributes that attempt to bridge the frustrating gap between NASA’s deeply inspirational work and the toothless official communication about it.

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