Mukherjee: The Emperor of all Maladies

October 14, 2013

I found this book very irritating indeed, mainly from the lack of decent editing. Its subtitle claimed it to be a biography of cancer, and I was branching out from my usual fare for something different, that I hoped would be enlightening. It wasn’t.

For starters, it was hard to see who the audience was meant to be: the general reader? but there were long sections full of scientific and genetic terminology and abbreviations that just made my brain hurt… and surely any medical person would have learned very little from it. Most of the time I felt you had to be a US citizen to have permission to read it, as almost all of its recountings of attempts at surgery, therapy and palliative care were from the USA, as if nowhere else existed, no other people got cancer, no-one from any other nation had done anything about it. Only very briefly and occasionally were the efforts of other nations acknowledged.

To learn anything you had to wade through acres of chaff, with brief biographical sketches of various people which seemed to be tacked on in an effort to make the book more interesting. And I didn’t feel a lot wiser when I got to the end.

OK, so what had I been expecting? I wanted a clear introduction to the disease, and the history of how our knowledge had developed over time and where it might look to be developing in the future, a fairly reasonable expectation of a popular science book, I think. I’d have liked some exploration of what I know to be the wide range of different types of cancer; this book relies heavily on breast cancer and leukaemia, excluding most of the rest. And because it tried to be a biography (why?) it rambled all over the place: you can’t write a biography of a disease.

Editing, I have come to realise over many years of reading and numerous encounters with unsatisfactory books, is a highly skilled art, and also one that most publishers do not seem inclined to spend time and money on nowadays. So we end up with shapeless and overlong books, with acres of notes padding out the page-count and explaining high prices, and often riddled with factual, grammatic and spelling errors. (The origin of the word ‘metastasis’ is NOT Latin!) I can understand that an academic book, and perhaps the first hardback publication ought to have full source notes, but surely a paperback edition could just point the curious reader to an archive website where the notes could be accessed?

So, all-in-all underimpressed, and relieved that I didn’t actually spend money on this book to read it.

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