Book: The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human

Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee

Review by: Hala Moddelmog, president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center

Hala Moddelmog

I’ve been a fan of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s work since reading his seminal book on cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, a widely acclaimed work explaining in laymen’s terms (and in deeply researched detail) the history of the disease and our advances in treating it.

I, like nearly everyone else in modern life, have watched friends and loved ones fight the disease. Through these experiences, I’ve seen the gamut of available treatments, from surgery to harsh chemo and radiation therapies.

We all learned in biology that the cell is the “basic building block of life,” but The Song of the Cell explains how addressing disease requires understanding the particularities of the cells in each of the body’s specific organs and systems.

This was enlightening for me, as I’ve become fascinated with the promise of immunotherapy, the practice of using the body’s own built-in defense mechanisms to fend off cancer, rather than burning it away with other effective but invasive and disruptive treatments. Former President Jimmy Carter, whose brain tumor was cured at 90 years old, is a great example of immunotherapy’s efficacy in certain cases.

Though some quibble with the details of Mukherjee’s science, the book was another example of an approachable work that contextualizes a common human experience and raises big ethical questions about our most basic of rights: access to health care.

As a case in point: Both immunotherapy and in vitro fertilization, like many breakthroughs, are sometimes only available to the wealthiest of patients, reminding us of still-too-persistent inequities in the health care system and requiring each of us to do a personal inventory of our own privilege.

In all, the most universally interesting aspect of this book, beyond its description of the players who help us understand the symphony at work inside each cell of our bodies, is how it helps us understand that the conventional wisdom of today, as in years past, is likely to be outdated in the near future as we better understand the stuff we’re made of.

In science, the music never stops.

Editor’s notes: Global Atlanta will receive a 10 percent commission on any purchase of this book through the links on this page. 

Each year, Global Atlanta asks influential readers and community leaders to review the most impactful book they read during the course of the year. This endeavor has continued annually since 2010.

See last year’s full list of books on BookShop here, and all 2021 reader picks here.

All books were chosen and reviews written independently, with only mild editing from our staff.