November 29th, 2010
With most of the first third of the book involving the non-science stories of Henrietta Lacks’ upbringing and personal life, this wonderful book demonstrates how you can reach the broad, non-science loving public by first meeting them on their own turf.
“AROUSE AND FULFILL” IN ACTION. Rebecca Skloot went far afield from science in the first third of her book by telling the back story on Henrietta Lacks — all about the hardship of her life working on a tobacco farm in Virginia. Guess what that non-science opening resulted in — Amazon Book of the Year.
USING THE HUMANITIES TO AROUSE INTEREST IN SCIENCE
Earlier this year I read Rebecca Skloot’s extremely well-written book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” and, like a whole lot of other people, flipped over it. In fact, I gave it the acid test by sending it to my 87 year old mother, Muffy Moose (star of “Flock of Dodos”). She devoured it and we had several great discussions about the book and her recollections of racial discrimination in the south where she lived for part of the 1930’s and 40’s. And that’s the main point of what I have to say here — the book is about medical science, but what we both connected on was not the medical science side of it, but rather the social issues side.
There you have the “arouse and fulfill” principle at work. In fact, if you read the book, you’ll notice there is very, very little science and medicine in the first third of it. Around page 120 she starts to get into a little depth about what happened to Henrietta’s cancer cells at Johns Hopkins and eventually in research laboratories around the world. But by the final third of the book you find yourself up to your neck in hard core medical science, however by then you’re so deeply hooked into the story that you don’t mind slowing down a bit to wade through the scientific details.
THE EXCEPTIONS PROVE THE RULE
Having myself written a book filled with stories, many of which are personal, and having read some of the grumbling of some bloggers who were annoyed at the “distractions” brought by things like humor and emotion, I decided to check out the Amazon Reader Reviews for her book to test a hypothesis. I hypothesized that given the amount of storytelling in her book — ESPECIALLY her very personal stories about “the writers journey” involving trying to connect with Henrietta’s descendants — I figured there would be at least a few “literal-minded grumblers” — meaning very literal-minded readers who read the book for only one purpose — to learn about HeLa cells. Those people would be annoyed with the “noise” of such “extraneous material” as her personal experiences.
Sure enough, if you look at the people who gave it one or two stars for their reviews, there you will find them — the literal-minded grumblers complaining because she dedicated “a substantial portion of the book to quoting Henrietta Lacks’s families personal struggles,” and, “When she writes about cell biology, science, and the ethics of medical research, RS writes well. When she writes about the woman behind the HeLa cells, she provides little more than a sketch of a life,” and ,”There is an iron-clad rule in journalism that reporters should never mix the process and difficulties of getting a story into the telling of it.”
I particularly like the last comment — that person should try explaining this “iron-clad rule” to the folks at Amazon who named it Book of the Year.
By the way, the standard way to evaluate movies in Hollywood is to have the audience give an overall score from 1 to 5. You add the 4’s and the 5’s and divide them by the total number of scores. Most distributors want their movie to score over a 70 if they are going to release it widely. Looking at the 372 scores for this book among readers, you end up with an overall score of 91 using this system. Which is amazing. And I think largely due to the excellent storytelling the author employed. It’s a great book, and a role model for how to communicate science to the general public.
But the overall lesson is how much NON-SCIENCE there is in the book. That’s the arousal part of the equation. And it is significant.