The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Review by Danny Ryan
This book is a biography of cancer. Ironically, while biography is literally a...moreThe Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Review by Danny Ryan
This book is a biography of cancer. Ironically, while biography is literally a sketch of life, cancer is a disease that causes death. In addition to the irony, the common attribute of all cancers is an excess of cellular life—cancer happens when certain of our cells grow too much. Mukherjee, an oncologist and a Rhodes scholar, is aware of this double-irony and is not afraid to explore it as he tells the history of this disease. Literary types will enjoy this book. Mukherjee is very well read and has a deep love of words and poetry which shows up in his introductory quotes, his broad vocabulary, and in his interesting comments on etymology. Mukherjee is metaphorically minded and loves telling stories—he is not playing the part of a fact-reporting historian. As he tells the history of man’s struggle with cancer, Mukherjee inserts stories of his own patients and experiences with the disease. These stories are welcome tangents in his sometimes technical descriptions of the war on cancer. I have one complaint: Mukherjee is sometimes overzealous in his variety of words. He has a habit of using an artsy word (i.e. fulminant, carapace, eponymous, tincture, magisterial) in a way that doesn’t quite fit the context. Maybe Mukherjee is using Microsoft Word’s synonym-finder a little too much. I appreciated the author’s comments on cancer as a struggle against death. He quotes a certain nurse, for instance, on the relentless and sometimes insensitive attitude of oncologists: “doctors were allergic to the smell of death. Death meant failure, defeat—their death, the death of medicine, the death of oncology” (226). Death is certainly the enemy of doctors and of all medicine but Mukherjee is not confident in science to overcome its enemy. While telling the history of cancer, he often points out the misguidedness of governmental scientific endeavors. For Mukherjee, death is a given. At the beginning of one chapter, he appropriately quotes T.S. Eliot:
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker; And I have seen the Eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker.
If he understands and believes the message of these lines in Prufrock, then Mukherjee will admit that the efforts of science and medicine are limited. Ultimately, for each and every one of us, medicine will fail and death will win. In the book’s final chapter, Mukherjee describes the funeral of Sidney Farber, the father of modern chemotherapy and a man who dedicated his life to fight the disease. At the funeral, someone read a poem over Farber’s body,
"Here now in his triumph where all things falter, Stretched out on the spoils that his own hand spread, As a god self-slain on his own strange alter, Death lies dead."
from Swinburne's A Forsaken Garden. (461).
This poem gives Mukherjee hope: “"It was cancer that was soon to be dead,” he writes, “-- its corpus outstretched and spread-eagled ceremonially on the alter-- death lying dead." But this hope is only metaphoric, not actual. Even if, in the future, cancer is routinely eradicated, death will still reign and the Eternal Footman will still take our coats. Every Christian, on the other hand, hears the words of this poem and thinks of Christ on the cross. But a Christian’s understanding of sacrifice and death must include Sin. Sin occupies the same equation as death—they are on the same budget-sheet. The obedience of Jesus and his death means life after death, immortality after mortality. Mukherjee considers immortality only in the biologically ironic case of cancer cells:
“Cancer, then, is quite literally trying to emulate a regenerating organ-- or perhaps, more disturbingly, the regenerating organism. Its quest for immortality mirrors our own quest, a quest buried in our embryos and in the renewal of our organs. Someday, if a cancer succeeds, it will produce a far more perfect being than its host-- imbued with both immortality and the drive to proliferate. One might argue that leukemia cells growing in my laboratory derived from the woman who died three decades earlier have already achieved this form of "perfection." (459).
The perfection of cancer is rightly called disturbing. Cancer cells never die; they grow and grow, and in the process of growing, they kill us. The part of a person, whether in the blood or the liver or the breast, has achieved immortality and become like God. That part pulls the rest of the body over a cliff. At the bottom, the whole person dies: both the mortal and “immortal” parts alike. (less)
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell challenges our assumptions on what it takes to be a success.
"People don't rise from nothing," he writes. "The...moreIn his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell challenges our assumptions on what it takes to be a success.
"People don't rise from nothing," he writes. "The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot" (19).
Gladwell is right and his point is somewhat of a relief. When we reach our mid twenties and notice that we haven't written any symphonies or successful novels, that we haven't made any feature length films or won a Heisman trophy or written a top-40 song, it's tempting to think that our lives have been unsuccessful and that have failed to seize the day.
"Do you see the consequences of the way we have chosen to think about success? Because we so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung. We make rules that frustrate achievement. We prematurely write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail. We overlook just how large a role we all play-- and by "we" I mean society-- in determining who makes it and who doesn't" (32-33).
Gladwell wants us to consider the ecology of success. Gladwell proves that radical success certainly involves talent, intelligence, and drive, but much of whether you will have historic success in life depends on the things beyond your control like your family culture, your situation, and pure chance. Using examples from sports, medicine, economics, law, and airlines, Gladwell convincingly explains that radical success in life is due to a person's culture and circumstances. In short, most success stories wouldn't be success stories if it were not for "Mr. Chance."
The focus of this book is the effect of the community on the success of individuals. It's a big deal. The failures lacked "something that could have been given to them if we'd only known they needed it: a community around them that prepared them properly for the world" (112).
Gladwell concludes that success is a gift. "It is not the brightest who succeed. If it were, Chris Langan (a man with an incredible IQ) would be up there with Einstein. Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities-- and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them."
This is a beautiful paragraph, beautiful because it is true. The battle is not to the strong, and the race is not to the fleet. Gladwell recognizes the giveness of radical success, a fact that should lead us to humility before the Giver of all things.
But Gladwell doesn't want to accept this fact. He wants to do something about it.
"We could easily take control of the machinery of achievement, in other words-- not just in sports but, as we will see, in other more consequential areas as well. But we don't. And why? Because we cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we all grow up and the rules we choose to write as a society don't matter at all" (33).
He is right that we should not cling to such a immature understanding of success, but what does he mean by re-structuring society so that everyone can be a success?
Gladwell reminds us of Bill Gates who made it big because he had nearly exclusive access to a computer's time-sharing terminal in the critical year of 1968. "If a milion teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?" Multiple Microsofts is a little difficult to imagine. "To build a better world," Gladwell continues,"we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success-- the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history-- with a society that provides opportunities for all. If Canada had a second hockey league for those children born in the last half of the year, it would have twice as many adult hockey stars" (268).
Success is given, according to Gladwell, by Chance. I think it is given by God. Either way, is Gladwell able to step into and fulfill the roles of Chance and God? Can we really "take control of the machinery of achievement" when, as Gladwell points out, achievement so often depends on things outside of our control?(less)