Sunday, April 15, 2012

Footnote on The Emperor of All Maladies

I'll restrain myself just another five-star review (322 already at Amazon) for Siddartha Mukherjee's fine Emperor of All Maladies, the definitive (for the moment) history of cancer, but I will offer a couple of afterthoughts and a more general suggestion.

Specifically: it's at least two books--one a social history of the war against cancer, particularly in its early, gorier chapters (think savage surgery, brutal chemo).  Second, it is a richly detailed account of the microbiology of cancer--a story which doesn't really get traction until the 70s, when J. Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus teamed up to unravel the secrets of the retrovirus (retrospective hat tip to Peyton Rous, who propagated a spindle-cell sarcoma back in 1910, and had to wait more than 40 years for his Nobel Prize)..

The point is that there wasn't a lot to tell about the gritty innards of cancer until scientists began making some serious headway with microbiology and that, as high school freshmen now know, didn't really happen until Crick and Watson untangled DNA in the 50s--and even such big ideas as DNA take time to sink in. So at this point, not only the substance but also the style of Mukherjee's book changes: the pace quickens, the glittering array of factoids begin to scatter their way across the stage.  

It's all a wonder--the story and the telling, yet ironically, the nearer he gets to the present, the harder it is for Mukherjee to tell his story with conviction.  Which brings me to my general point: I suspect what we're seeing here is not a failing in the author but a structural failing in this kind of material.  As he approaches the moment, his tale morphs from history into journalism.  Nothing wrong with journalism per se, no siree, mighty proud to say it.  You have to start somewhere. But ten, maybe 20, years from now  he'll be able to retell the story with more structure and more critical detachment--and perhaps with a whole batch  of insights that will make us , wonder "how could we not have known?"  FWIW, I think this insight sank into me as I made my way through so many (often excellent) histories of the late uproar on Wall Street, blessed with comparable virtues and saddled with similar defects.  Journalism is indispensable, but side by side with history it's always going to look weak and incomplete.  Because, well, it is and has to be.

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