Monday, January 2, 2017

Book Review: The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

I read Dr. Mukherjee's previous book, The Emperor of All Maladies, and loved it, so this one was a no-brainer. After all, it's a very short list of writers who can make dense, complicated scientific writing so accessible and interesting to a lay person. This book wasn't quite at that level, but that is a very high bar so you should still read it.

My favorite stories were the narrative bits. The framing story of Dr. Mukherjee's own family, his uncle with schizophrenia and his other uncle with bipolar, both of whom were challenges for the family to deal with, was riveting. I also loved the beginning of the book when he talked about Darwin and especially about Mendel. I had no idea that poor Mendel, a German monk, had failed at his first job (minister) and was trying for a second career as a teacher, and he completely botched the licensing test more than once. And I mean really botched it. It's always fascinating for me to find people who are famous, who achieved amazing things, but who were actually considered failures at the time. It gives such hope to all of us, that no matter how down and out we might feel, we might still be having an easier time than someone like Mendel who proved the theory of heritability and therefore the theory of genes with his plant experiments. And THEN, his paper on the experiments was completely forgotten for almost 50 years, was very nearly forgotten altogether.

After all of this, when Dr. Mukherjee gets into the structure of the genes and the difficulty of mapping them and the ethical problems with changing them, at times I got a little lost in the weeds. I blame my terrible grasp of biology, not his writing for that. (I barely passed 9th grade biology.) But it did take me a little longer to finish the book than I'd anticipated. Still, it was worth it, and it was a terrific book to end the year on!

I checked this book out of the library.

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