For its deep, accessible dive into scientific knowledge, the 2023 Chautauqua Prize has been awarded to The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human, by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
The Chautauqua Prize has been annually awarded for 12 years to a book of fiction or literary nonfiction, and honors the author — this year, the Pulitzer Prize-winning and bestselling author Mukherjee — for creating a significant contribution to the literary arts. Throughout the years, the winning books have been noteworthy for opening inquiry and creating spaces for conversation among different kinds of readers.
Mukherjee will receive a $7,500 prize and participate in a ceremony and reading at 5 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.
“I was amazed and surprised and absolutely delighted,” Mukherjee said. “The Chautauqua Prize is one of the most important literary prizes that anyone can aspire to win in their career as a writer. I feel incredibly honored and humbled in receiving this prize.”
Since appearing on shelves in October 2022, The Song of the Cell has been a New York Times Notable book, winner of the 2023 PROSE Award for Excellence in Biological and Life Science as well as “Best Book of the Year” from The Economist, Oprah Daily, Book Riot, the New York Public Library, and more.
Sony Ton-Aime, the Michael I. Rudell Director of Literary Arts, said he’s never seen an author combine science, knowledge and prose as well as Mukherjee.
“Siddhartha Mukherjee has made centuries of serious scientific knowledge accessible to everyone through lively and masterful prose. This makes The Song of the Cell the perfect book to win the Prize this year, ” he said in an Institution press release announcing the winner in June.
The book begins in the late 1600s, when Mukherjee introduces readers to English polymath Robert Hooke and Dutch merchant Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.
It’s the first Prize winner to cover hard science so extensively.
“(Winning the Prize) inspires me to be a more thoughtful writer,” said Mukherjee, an associate professor at Columbia University and a cancer physician and researcher. “My writing sits in an interdisciplinary arena between science, history, memoir and medicine.”
In recognizing his “out-of-the-genre” book, Mukherjee said the Institution has inspired him to continue breaking boundaries in his writing and thinking. His previous books include The Gene: An Intimate History and The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.
The Song of the Cell is the story of how scientists discovered cells, began to understand them and are now using that knowledge to push medical boundaries.
“The Song of the Cell is not only about cell biology, but also about what it means to be human, what defines us now and what will define us in the future,” Mukherjee said. “I thought it was an urgent history and story to convey to my readers.”
Writers such as Lewis Thomas, Atul Gawande and Richard Roves paved the road that combine science, medicine and literature, and Mukherjee said he is proud to be recognized as part of this tradition.
“Science is about discovery and books that convey that acute sense of discovery will always be not only the scientific canon, but also the literary canon,” he said.
In his prose approach, Mukherjee said all of his writing attempts to combine these elements.
“I often think these distinctions are arbitrary,” he said. “There’s no reason writing amongst science and medicine cannot be poetic.”