Because I spend much of my time poring over unpublished manuscripts, my timetable for reading recent releases can be erratic. Sometimes I’ll read a galley and get a jump on the books of the season, but more frequently I play catch up with the bestseller lists. Only a year or so after it hit the NYT list and months after Stacey pointed to it as an example of superb nonfiction, I got hold of the paperback edition of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the book got hold of me. “Gripping” is rarely a word associated with narrative science, but Skloot’s book is powerful, provocative and moving, and I stayed up until the wee hours to finish it. I’ll leave the reviews to the reviewers, adding only an “amen” to each rave, but in TILOHL, I found not only a tremendous literary achievement, but also an occasion to bask in the happy feeling brought on when Good Things Happen to Good Books. I don’t mean to go all Polyanna here, but we are all involved in an industry renowned for its dire self-assessments and apocalyptic predictions (here in Bookworld, The End is always near) so it feels especially nice to encounter a project that signals that the publishing business is not so bankrupt, moribund or rigged as it is often accounted. Rebecca Skloot’s book was obviously a monumental effort, a ten-year project underwritten with credit cards and student loans as she attempted to reconstruct the life of a woman whose cells—taken and used without her consent—have contributed to most every medical advance of the past 50 years. A worthy subject, certainly, but also, given Skloot’s close involvement with the Lacks family, a messy and unpredictable tale that is not easily folded into a single, cogent book. That this richly deserving read about a raft of difficult subjects—cancer, biology, race relations, biomedical ethics, just to name a few—made it to press (this is a story in itself, involving three publishing houses and many editors) and has been such a resounding success might offer a moment’s respite to the literary pessimist/eschatologist in each of us. Surely we’re not headed to hell in a handbasket if books like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks can triumph.
Are there any books that you’ve read recently that, even for a moment, restored your faith in the book business?