One Read aims to provoke discussion, promote community among readers

Wednesday, June 1, 2011 | 6:47 p.m. CDT; updated 3:45 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 14, 2011
"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" is on display for Columbia's One Read program at the MU Bookstore.

COLUMBIA — Although her grave is unmarked, and she was called by the wrong name for years, her story could bring readers together in Columbia this summer.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot has taken the win as the book of choice for the 10th annual One Read program, coordinated by Daniel Boone Regional Library.

Sally Abromovich, public services librarian, called the nonfiction novel a “fascinating read” that touches on current bioethical issues.

The book is three-fold: it tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. Unbeknownst to her, her physician harvested her cells and grew them for the first time in medical history. Those cells were vital in creating the polio vaccine and led to advances in cancer research, in vitro fertilization and more.

It also tells the story of Lacks' children, who didn’t realize what had happened until years later. They were too poor to afford health insurance – and all the while their mother was playing an unprecedented role in medical advances.

The third part of the story is of the author, Skloot, who worked with Lacks' family for two years while writing the book and has since helped them set up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation.

To add to the complexity of the story, Skloot poses the question of how Lacks' medical treatment and story might have been different if she was white instead of African-American.

Although the Lacks family lived in the '50s, and medicine has come a long way, many of the ethical practices are still relevant.

“I think the big question here is what’s more important: the right of the individual or the betterment of humanity,” Abromovich said. “This is a subject very prominent right now, and yet it also has the human side because of Henrietta Lacks and her family.”

In September, readers can expect several events that explore the themes of the book through music, art, film and discussions. 

Abromovich said the novel aims to open up dialogue among community members from all walks of life.

“Sometimes a book can bring people together that wouldn’t have anything else in common,” she said. “It forms community.”

The One Read program has been very successful, Abromovich said.

“All year long we have people asking us, ‘What’s the next One Read?’" she said.  "I think people enjoy having so many others read the same book at the same time. You can go almost anywhere and discuss it with someone.”

Readers can check out “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” from the Columbia Public Library, Daniel Boone Regional Library's branches in Fulton and Ashland and from bookmobile stops. The book is also on shelves at several bookstores around town, including Barnes & Noble, University Bookstore, Village Books and Get Lost Bookshop downtown. Audio and electronic versions are also available.

“This is just the second time we’ve chosen a nonfiction book," Abromovich said. "But for our fiction readers, Rebecca Skloot has written a wonderful story.”

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