How Cancer Became Cancer and What Its Future Holds: A Pulitzer-Winning Biography of the Dreaded Disease
By Maria Popova
The highly contested nonfiction category of the Pulitzer Prize is as much a measure of good writing as it is a reflection of the era’s cultural concerns. The 2011 nonfiction winner was The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (public library) by Columbia professor of medicine Siddhartha Mukherjee — an intelligent and illuminating 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.
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 game-changing discoveries of various brilliant scientists over the past half-century as the scientific community raced to understand how cells 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 nonfiction that oscillates between the profoundly distressing cultural tyranny of a presently incurable disease and the relentless scientific exhilaration embedded in the very possibility of unraveling this great and all-consuming mystery.
Published April 19, 2011