Skip to main content

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

Review

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

As I write on a very cold, blustery Canadian winter morning, millions of tiny processes are going on inside my body, doing the myriad things needed to keep me alive without my even having to think about it. As you read this, they’re going on inside your body, too.The responsible protagonists are cells, the smallest self-contained organisms we know of (so far). Every living thing, sentient or otherwise, is comprised of these amazing and infinitely variable microscopic entities.

In THE SONG OF THE CELL, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee adds to a remarkable medical trilogy that began with THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES (2010), a ground-breaking reveal about cancer and the eternal quest for a cure, followed by THE LAWS OF MEDICINE: Field Notes from an Uncertain Science (2015) and THE GENE (2016), which brought mindful non-scientific readers up close and personal with DNA, the enigmatic code of life. What better follow-up than this remarkable journey through the “rooms” (literally, how cells got their name) in which DNA lives?

"To say that THE SONG OF THE CELL reads like an outstanding novel is no slight praise for such a purposeful and mind-changing scientific book."

Known for his colorful, clever and even rhapsodic prose, Mukherjee is anything but ephemeral when it comes to unpacking the voluminous yet fraught history and science of cellular biology. He’s also a proven master of the precision that you’d find in a core curriculum medical textbook. That rare combination of imaginative appeal and fact-filled authority is in itself a stroke of genius when it comes to a subject as complex and all-encompassing as the very building blocks of humanity.

In THE SONG OF THE CELL, Mukherjee basically acts as an extremely intuitive and empathic tour guide, who at every step seeks to smarten us up rather than dumb us down. For most of some two-dozen illustrated chapters, he includes the word “cell,” preceded by a compelling adjective that hints at the next theme on the journey: The Visible Cell, The Tampered Cell, The Organized Cell, The Defending Cell, The Contemplating Cell, The Selfish Cell and so on, like the refrain in a song, the refrain of his title.

And yes, such descriptions do give these microscopic entities a slight hint of “personality,” but what Mukherjee is really doing is dissolving barriers of intellectual intimidation that ordinarily would keep most of us from even contemplating such a book.

Then, just as we’re comfortably immersed in the rhythm of THE SONG OF THE CELL, there is a sudden break in the flow, a change of key. Mukherjee temporarily abandons his picturesque chapter pattern with a deep dive into The Pandemic. COVID-19 interrupted and even threatened the completion of his work on the book, just as it interrupted and re-shaped everyone else’s life. While all the other chapters are grouped into five distinct parts, or legs of the cellular journey, a dozen or so pages devoted to the ongoing pandemic and its seemingly myriad mutations are given a separate part.

It is here where Mukherjee candidly reveals his vulnerability, describing how he fell into a deep depression, partly from the medical devastation he experienced all around him as a practicing oncologist, partly from the effects of being torn away from a project that had ignited his passion and energy. But with profound self-care and faith in his purpose, another 200 pages were birthed to bring THE SONG OF THE CELL to a very powerful resting chord. But it’s not a final cadence by any means.

Just as in his previous medical bestsellers, Mukherjee orchestrates a vast but accessible compendium of knowledge to remind us that everything we know about the human organism is how we open doors to new knowledge we can’t even imagine yet. To say that THE SONG OF THE CELL reads like an outstanding novel is no slight praise for such a purposeful and mind-changing scientific book. One can only hope that Mukherjee applies his Shakespearean eloquence and remarkable research skills to producing more like it.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on November 23, 2022

The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human
by Siddhartha Mukherjee

  • Publication Date: October 25, 2022
  • Genres: History, Medicine, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1982117354
  • ISBN-13: 9781982117351