I keep a list of books to read. It grows and grows; I tackle it in spurts. I have wanted to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks ever since it debuted in 2010.
I have lived in Austin for five years now. Last week I got my Austin Public Library card. I don’t know what took me so long. It did, though. I am fortunate to work on the “East side” of Austin, which is rich with culture and eclectic as Austin can get. While it’s nowhere close to where I live currently, the George Washington Carver Austin Public Library is very close to my office. It is the oldest library branch in Austin, connected to the George Washington Carver Museum. Not only is it beautiful inside and out, but the librarians come with history lessons! Not only did I spot the audio version of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks within two minutes, but as I checked out my treasure, my librarian – Bill – explained the history of the building and branch, including Austin’s decision to desegregate the library system four years before Brown v. Board of Education. Wow. Bonus.
On to the audio book. What can I say other than I loved it? It is beautifully written by Rebecca Skloot, wonderfully narrated by Casandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin, and just the right combination of science and humanities.
Henrietta Lacks was an African-American cervical cancer patient at Johns Hopkins. Her physician took her cancer cells without consent. Those cells, coined HeLa cells – from her first and last names, became the first “immortal” cell culture/line, growing and dividing despite all odds. Her cells exist in every lab around the world, have been used to advance science in unquantifiable ways. The book is a lovely view of oncology, virology, genetics, ethics, and civil rights.
Without a doubt, get a library card if you do not already have one, and reserve this title. Listen to it on your way to work, as you clean your house, or while you vaguely watch your kiddos’ soccer practice. You will say, “Just five more minutes,” several times. It’s that good.