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.