Jan. 7th, 2017

Jan. 7th, 2017 12:00 pm

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The Gene: An Intimate History

4 of 5 stars

One of my favorite non-fiction books of the past few years was The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. It won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize. This book is both a sequel and prequel to Emperor. One of that book's main themes is that cancer is a genetic disease, with cells basically running amuck because of mutated DNA. I don't know if the author realized he was setting his next book in motion by saying this, but this book is pretty much the followup he had to write.

Needless to say, it is quite heavy on the science. Personally, I love this kind of stuff, but be aware that this book is 500 pages, not counting the endnotes, and it's definitely not something you can race through at the beach. It traces the discovery of genes and DNA, from Gregor Mendel's "units of heredity" to modern-day epigenetics. Siddharta Mukherjee, as was made clear from his first book, is an expert at explaining incredibly complex scientific material to a layperson audience. He is also an engaging writer in his own right, as evidenced in this excerpt from p. 310, discussing the beginnings of the Human Genome Project:

"If the Genome Project had not found Collins in 1993, it might have found it necessary to invent him: he was almost preternaturally matched to its peculiar challenges. A devout Christian from Virginia, an able communicator and administrator, a first-rate scientist, Collins was measured, cautious, and diplomatic; to Venter's furious little yacht constantly tilting against the winds, Collins was a transoceanic liner, barely registering the tumult around him."

Mukherjee also adds a deft personal touch to the story, with his family history of mental illness. This humanizes the author, and makes it clear that his imposing tome is a bit more than a dry scientific premise. If you loved The Emperor of All Maladies, as I did, I think you will enjoy this. 

 

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Words To Live By

Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job: it’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins. ~Neil Gaiman

Of course I am not worried about intimidating men. The type of man who will be intimidated by me is exactly the type of man I have no interest in. ~Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The road to hell is paved with adverbs. ~Stephen King

The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read. ~Mark Twain

I feel free and strong. If I were not a reader of books I could not feel this way. ~Walter Tevis

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one. ~George R.R. Martin

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