Common Reading 2011: The price of immortality

Book cover of 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'Henrietta Lacks was a poor tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors. She died of cervical cancer in 1951, at age 31. Yet her cells – taken without her knowledge, from the tumor that killed her – are still alive today.

Bought and sold by the billions, HeLa cells have played a crucial role in developing the polio vaccine, uncovering the secrets of cancer, and revealing the effects of the atomic bomb, among other medical milestones. Yet Henrietta herself remains virtually unknown and for decades was buried in an unmarked grave. And even though her immortal cells launched a multimillion-dollar industry, her family never saw any of the profits.

SMU has named The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot as the class of 2015’s Common Reading Experience – the book all incoming first-year students will read and discuss together.

Skloot, a science journalist writing her first book, “tells a rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society’s most vulnerable people,” according to a starred review from Publishers Weekly. National Public Radio called the book “one of the best conversation starters of 2010.”

The Common Reading Selection and Implementation Committee hails Skloot’s work for raising “thought-provoking questions in areas as disparate as medical ethics and the tension between a writer’s compassion for her subject matter and her insistence on telling the truth,” said Associate Provost Harold Stanley in a Feb. 7 e-mail announcing the selection.

In anticipation of the student discussions next fall, SMU’s Center for Teaching Excellence and moderator Ron Wetherington will host a series of reading circles during Spring 2011.

The reading circle discussions are scheduled as follows:

  • Monday, March 21 (section 1)
  • Monday, March 28 (section 2)
  • Monday, April 4 (section 3)

All CTE discussions will be held noon-1 p.m. in the Texana Room, DeGolyer Library. Register online at the CTE homepage to participate.

All faculty and staff members who agree to host a Common Reading student discussion in August will receive a free copy of the book. To volunteer, contact Diana Grumbles, senior lecturer in English and director of first-year writing.

> Watch for more information at the Central University Libraries’ Common Reading page