The Sciences

I put it down once to wipe off the sweat

Cosmic VarianceBy Daniel HolzMar 2, 2010 2:43 AM


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It's generally easy to write a damning book review. It's much harder to write a positive and enthusiastic one. So how about a review that includes this paragraph?:

I put down Rebecca Skloot’s first book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” more than once. Ten times, probably. Once to poke the fire. Once to silence a pinging BlackBerry. And eight times to chase my wife and assorted visitors around the house, to tell them I was holding one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time.

That's Dwight Garner reviewing the book for the New York Times. What's more, this is a nonfiction book revolving around science! Henrietta Lacks died at age 31 of cervical cancer. She was relatively poor, and completely unknown. No tombstone marks her grave. Without any sort of consent or awareness, some of her cells were "stolen" during her treatment. It turned out that the cells could be cultured, and they rapidly became a key tool in biomedicine. Salk used her cells to develop a vaccine for polio. The cells are ubiquitous, living on and thriving half a century after Henrietta Lacks' death. Although this was all news to me, apparently any self-respecting biologist has heard of HeLa. Her full story has plenty of moral and philosophical implications, as well as basic science. Henrietta Lacks has had a profound, and completely unwitting, impact on our lives. Wired magazine has a chart:

Garner ends his review with:

This is the place in a review where critics tend to wedge in the sentence that says, in so many words, “This isn’t a perfect book.” And “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” surely isn’t. But there isn’t much about it I’d want to change. It has brains and pacing and nerve and heart, and it is uncommonly endearing. You might put it down only to wipe off the sweat.

I think he liked the book. Other reviews have been similarly enthusiastic (see Skloot's blog for links). "Immortal Life" is definitely heading to my bedside table. But apparently one of my co-bloggers has recently published a book, and I should probably read that one first. If only I could find time.

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