Thursday, December 16, 2021

Nonfiction Review: An Elegant Defense

One of my audiobook picks for Nonfiction November was An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System: A Tale in Four Lives by Matt Richtel. This book caught my eye when it was released in 2019, in part because I have a chronic illness that is an immune disorder, but it became even more relevant--for everyone--when the COVID-19 pandemic began. I learned a lot listening to this book and found it very engaging.

As the sub-subtitle indicates, this book explains the complexities of the immune system in part by looking at its role in the lives of four real-life patients: one man with cancer undergoing immunotherapy, one man who's been living with AIDS since the 80's, and two women with different types of autoimmune conditions. The author also plays a personal role in the narrative, as the cancer patient is his childhood friend, Jason, and the reason he began researching the immune system in the first place. He not only explains his disease (and that of the other three patients) but tells us about each of them personally and what their lives are like so that we care about them. In addition to telling the stories of these four patients as a framework for the book, Richtel also reviews the history of immune medicine and interviews the top doctors and researchers in the field, including one immune expert at the top of his career, Dr. Anthony Fauci (who no one in the general public had ever heard of when this book was published!). If you've ever wondered if Dr. Fauci was properly qualified to lead our fight against the pandemic, this book will unintentionally answer that question with a resounding yes. In fact, much of the book is extra-interesting in light of the public health crisis of the past two years. The author explains the complexities of the immune system in easy-to-understand ways and directly applies the science to real people through his case studies. He describes the amazing advances in medical science and the study of the immune system in the past 100 years or so, but also acknowledges the limits of our current knowledge.

One thing I really liked about this book was that the author is not a medical doctor or scientist. He is a reporter, someone who became interested in the immune system because of his friend's cancer battle, so he approaches the topic from a layperson's perspective. This is probably why he does such a great job of describing this complicated system in simple terms. He doesn't oversimplify, either, and gets into some of the nitty-gritty of different kinds of cells within the immune system. I thought I already knew a lot about the immune system, but I learned plenty while listening to this book. My only disappointment was that there are no easy answers for those of us suffering from dysfunctional immune systems! It's one of the last frontiers of medical science. For as much as we've learned about how the immune system works, we still don't know how to fine-tune it or normalize a malfunctioning immune system. As he explains, even the best immune treatments still have significant downsides: immunotherapy can cure cancer but cause an autoimmune condition, where the immune system attacks itself, and suppressing the immune system can feel miraculous to someone with an autoimmune disease at first but that suppressed immune system can cause its own problems. Though I had a personal interest in the topic of this book, everyone can learn something from this fascinating and easy-to-read investigation of the immune system, especially in our current pandemic environment. It's not only informative but engrossing; listen to the audio sample below to see what I mean.

448 pages, William Morrow


Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.


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Listen to a sample of the audiobook here, with the narrator describing Jason and his cancer diagnosis, and/or download it from Audible.


You can buy the book through, where your purchase will support the indie bookstore of your choice (or all indie bookstores)--the convenience of shopping online while still buying local!



Or you can order An Elegant Defense from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

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