Henrietta Lacks and the Future of Science Books

By Carl ZimmerFeb 2, 2010 5:32 AM


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I first met the writer Rebecca Skloot about eight years ago. She had been working on a book for a couple years and running late. The idea was brilliant, though, so I hoped she’d be able to get it done before too long. Many scientists who study human cell biology use a special line of cells known as HeLa. It came from a woman named Henrietta Lacks, who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Skloot was writing about Lacks, her family, and the way her body became dispersed around the world.

When I would see Skloot again, I’d ask how the book was going. Still going. After a while, I stopped asking, because I know how irritating that question can get when the answer hasn’t budged for a while. When the book was done, it would be done.

A decade passed before the book was done. When Skloot sent me an advance copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks a few months ago, I discovered why it had taken so long. She doggedly pursued the story, reconstructing a fifty-year saga intertwining the experience of a family struggling in Baltimore and the rise of modern biology. It was worth the wait, and I happily provided a blurb–

“Rebecca Skloot has written a marvelous book so original that it defies easy description. She traces the surreal journey that a tiny patch of cells belonging to Henrietta Lacks’s body took to the forefront of science. At the same time, she tells the story of Lacks and her family—wrestling the storms of the late twentieth century in America—with rich detail, wit, and humanity. The more we read, the more we realize that these are not two separate stories, but one tapestry. It’s part The Wire, part The Lives of the Cell, and all fascinating.”

Spending a decade working on her book, Skloot became a literary Rip Van Winkle. She started her book back before the rise of blogs, before the annihilation of book reviews in newspapers, before Kindles and Ipads. When Skloot started her book, the book tour was still a relatively common feature of the promotion of a new book. But Skloot discovered that book tours had pretty much evaporated by the time her book was coming out.

As I’ve published books of my own over the past decade, I’ve watched these same changes accrue, book by book. I’ve tried to take more control over the promotion of my work. I look for ways to spread the word about my books online, not just when they come out, but long afterwards. I am grateful to readers who spread the word further on their own blogs and tweets. But I have to say that publishing books gets more and more nerve-wracking as time goes on. Writing books is a slow process, but the publishing industry is changing fast. I feel as if I am at an archery contest. I take a long, long time to aim at a target, but by the time I let the arrow fly, someone’s moved the target away.

So I was curious to see how Skloot would contend with the challenge of publishing a book in 2010. Fortunately, she has comet it with great creativity and verve. One of the thing’s she’s done is crowd-source a book tour. She has sent out a call to everyone she knows for help in lining up talks across the US and beyond. I don’t quite know how the whole thing came together, but she is now starting a zillion-city, multi-month tour.

I offered my help for the Elm City leg of the tour, so let me just take a moment to send out a call to everyone in and around New Haven, Connecticut. Skloot will be talking on Monday, 2/8, at 4 pm at a Morse College Master’s Tea at Yale. Morse College is under renovation this year, so the students are staying at Yale’s Swing Space at 100 Tower Parkway (Map).

Skloot has also been lining up lots of other opportunities to talk about the book. Today (2/2) is the official date of publication, and the book is #11 on Amazon. That’s a great thing to see (even if Amazon’s on my blacklist at the moment because of their ongoing book-disappearing act). It may be too early to pass final judgment on the book’s commercial success, but I’m impressed so far.

I think Skloot’s experiences are worth studying, although they are no guarantee for every writer insane enough to write a book about science. For one thing, Skloot has an exceptional subject, which she has written about exceptionally well. What’s more, the odds are getting tougher for all authors. With more and more book titles in competition for the shrinking amount of time people spend reading books, a lot of disappointment is inevitable. Still, it’s a good idea for writers not to become recluses. Sure, spend time in the monastic solitude that books require, but then emerge and engage. You don’t have to tweet with Skloot’s hurricane-scale intensity, but do forge the relationships in which you can support fellow writers, and they can support you.

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