So I really enjoy being in a book club. Not because we have amazing conversations (even though we often do) and not because these groups are filled with fabulous friends (even though we typically become just that). The reason why these groups are so amazing has everything to do with the types of books we read. The best way for me to explain it is simply to say this: in book clubs, you often find yourself reading books most of us would never even open otherwise.
A few years back, the book selected for our May club was no exception. (I’m re-telling you about this book today because I think it being so science-y and all caused it to not get the literary attention it deserved.)
Anyway, without even realizing it, our esteemed member from the great Northwest happened to select a book that was set very close to the club’s location, right in Baltimore. (I really do think reading a book about your hometown always makes it more interesting. We saw that with the prior August’s selection, Jarrettsville: A Novel, and again with this book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.)
To give you a quick overview, here is how Publisher’s Weekly summarized this true story:
Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about faith, science, journalism, and grace. It is also a tale of medical wonders and medical arrogance, racism, poverty and the bond that grows, sometimes painfully, between two very different women—Skloot and Deborah Lacks—sharing an obsession to learn about Deborah’s mother, Henrietta, and her magical, immortal cells. Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old black mother of five in Baltimore when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge, doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins took tissue samples from her cervix for research. They spawned the first viable, indeed miraculously productive, cell line—known as HeLa. These cells have aided in medical discoveries from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments. What Skloot so poignantly portrays is the devastating impact Henrietta’s death and the eventual importance of her cells had on her husband and children. Skloot’s portraits of Deborah, her father and brothers are so vibrant and immediate they recall Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family. Writing in plain, clear prose, Skloot avoids melodrama and makes no judgments. Letting people and events speak for themselves, Skloot tells a rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society’s most vulnerable people.
Yet even with that glowing review, I let the book sit on my desk for three weeks before I finally got past the first few pages. I had a really hard time getting past the fact that this book was: a) about science (remember: I went to art school to avoid science and math) and b) was about true science. Really. I couldn’t imaging how a book about science — not science fiction — could be entertaining.
But it was riveting.
Skloot’s description of the science behind it was simple enough for the non-scientific reader to understand, yet complex enough to make you realize just how important these cells are to the scientific community.
No, it didn’t make me wish I hadn’t slept my way through high school biology (which, for the record, was the last science class I ever took… unless you count my college class entitled Properties of Artistic Materials), but it did open my eyes to just how far medical science has come in the past 60-some years, and how each of us has played a part in those advances. In addition, it humanized the privacy issues surrounding scientific research, in a way those HIPAA forms I’ve signed a million times never did.
And for those reasons, I think it’s a book everyone should read.
About two-thirds of the way into the book, the author finally explained why Henrietta Lacks’ cells were able to become immortal, why her cells kept dividing when regular cells seemed to always die off eventually. It was at this point that the story grabbed ahold of me and wouldn’t let go.
It was at this point that the story of the HeLa cells got a whole lot more personal.
But this post was supposed to be about the book itself and why you should read it, so enough about me. It’s time for you to go check this book out of your library, or download it on your e-reader.
I’ll use another post to explain how those tiny cells from Henrietta Lacks ended up changing my life (quite literally) more than half a century later…