Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Emperor of All Maladies

In a world where being a fan of fiction is looked down upon like few things are, I fiercely defend my love for novels and stories. "Escapist literature!" - my father used to get so annoyed at the P.G Wodehouses I was addicted to. "I never read stories, I read to improve my mind, not for entertainment" - said the guy I was trying to impress with my large bookshelf, his lip curling in disgust at my Terry Pratchetts and Ashok Bankers.

My affection for fiction comes unabated. I will stop reading novels when I no longer get the tingling feeling of anticipation when I hold an unread book in my hand, the anticipation, that in a few minutes some people will come alive in the here and now, whose destinies I will get involved in, whose troubles will make me cry and whose joys will make laugh. I share this passion for creative fiction with my little sister Leena, who is the only other person I know who can inhale 500 page novels in one afternoon. And Azar Nafisi agrees with me: 

“A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil.”

Non fiction can do this too sometimes. I've just finished reading Siddharth Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies, and if any book can make you hold your breath and keep you awake at night, this one can. I recieved two copies of the book on my birthday (thank you, Sekhar and Anal!), and its one of the best birthday presents ever! Before 12 pages were done, I knew I was going to love it as much as the most thrilling fiction I've read. Mukherjee calls it the 'biography of cancer'. The book is that, and so much more. It's a thrilling page turner of a book, where the science and the discoveries blend so effortlessly with the human joys and foibles. No courtroom drama, or detective with magnifying glass can keep you so riveted for 600 pages. The stories pour out one after another, of how disfiguring surgeries acquired near religious fervour then lost favour, of the decades of war between tobacco manufacturers and activists, of gene discoveries that were as much chance as years of passionate work...And then there are human stories of victory and defeat, like the Jimmy fund and the Herceptin trial, that make you well up.

The book won a Pulitzer this year. But that's not why I recommend it. Read it because never before has science been written about in a way that reminds of poetry and detective fiction.


  1. oh really??

    I am going to read one soon :p

    Sounds just the right amount of science and emotion

  2. "Inhale 500 pages in an afternoon" makes me take deep breaths already!!

    Kindly pass on the second, unused, copy of the book. :D

  3. I don't share the same passion for fiction for sure, but non-fiction gets me into the groove. And going by your strong recommendation, this one seems a must, despite the scary page count :P

    And you are most welcome :)

  4. well said Jo. Non-fiction written with a narrative style commonly seen in fictional writing - a rare combination indeed. Siddhartha Mukherjee makes Cancer so alive in the readers' eyes by juxtaposing perspectives from patients, doctors and researchers that his calling this book "the biography of cancer" seems so perfect. A rare treat indeed !

  5. From the look of it, I think I will like this - love when the author captures the details to create a live picture and keeps you fixated all along(Boy! something I just love about Mr. A. Hailey).

    Will take much more than an afternoon but seems a perfect read after the 'Picadilly Jim' I just got done with.

    Am borrowing one of your copies at Solstice. TIA :-)

    p.s. Thanks for the insightful quote from Azar Nafisi.

  6. Read India After Gandhi if you want a similar experience with non-fiction - its a huge tome but its exciting as well as depressing - making you wonder how bad textbooks can make you detest reading history but good story-writers can create a page-turner out of the same information..

    Can't wait to read this now that have a fiction lover rooting for this.. :)


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