Not So Immortal: The Compromised Life of Common Reading Programs

Peter Wood

The National Institutes of Health announced on August 7 that it had reached an agreement with members of the Lacks family that would give them rights over a widely used line of cultured cells. The case involved cells derived from a cancerous cervical tumor in a woman who died from the disease in 1951. Henrietta Lacks was a housewife and the mother of five when she was diagnosed with cancer at age 29.

Henrietta (born “Loretta Pleasant”) had a humble background. She was one of ten children. She was four when her mother died and her father shipped her off to live with her grandfather in a log cabin that had formerly been slave quarters on a Virginia plantation. She was raised in the company of her illegitimate cousin, Day Lacks, whom she later married.

Henrietta had six or seven years of school and a strong aversion to doctors. Her medical records show syphilis and gonorrhea which she left untreated after being diagnosed. She likewise ignored a doctor who referred her for tests when blood first showed up in her urine. By the time she went to the Johns Hopkins gynecology clinic with heavy bleeding and “a knot inside me,” she had only a few months left to live.

Her inadvertent legacy is that her uterine tumor cells proved to be the first human cells that kept growing and reliably reproducing in vitro. Henrietta Lacks’ cell line—known as HeLa cells—became and remain to this day a powerful tool for medical research. Henrietta herself wasn’t asked to contribute the cells and apparently knew nothing about it.

And therein hangs the tale made famous by contemporary author Rebecca Skloot, whose best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, lies pretty directly behind the decision by the National Institutes of Health to grant a measure of scientific power to Lacks’ descendents. Skloot’s book is an odd amalgam. She reconstructs what she can of the actual mortal life of Henrietta, mixes it with a memoir of her own quest to turn up the facts, adds in a bit of the scientific background, and gives generous space to the grievances of current members of the Lacks family, who generally feel disappointed that they didn’t see any monetary benefit from the HeLa cells.

The NIH decision made national news, but behind that decision is the success of Skloot’s book, and behind her success is the burgeoning phenomenon of college “common reading” programs.

There are over 300 colleges and universities in the U.S. that now assign a single book to pre-first-year students to read over the summer before they take any actual courses, and there are some variations on this idea too, such as requiring all the students, not just freshmen, to do the reading. These assignments don’t result in academic credit. Rather they are promoted by the colleges as a way of building “community,” emphasizing particular “values,” and giving students some shared reference points beyond music and movies.

As it happens, 31 of these programs (1 out of 10) last year picked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for its common reading. It was the second year running in which Skloot’s book bested all its rivals. Number two, chosen by 18 colleges, was The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. Number three, chosen by nine colleges, was Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town.

The common reading programs are a veritable industry for authors like Skloot, who is on almost constant tour as a campus speaker. She has a website, teaching materials keyed to her book, short videos on her research methods, and even a Jeopardy-style game. In 2010 Oprah Winfrey announced plans to make a movie of the book. Skloot also created a charitable body, the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, that receives donations and gives educational grants for tuition, books, and medical and dental care.

These numbers come from a report that my organization, the National Association of Scholars, issued this week: Beach Books: 2012-2013, subtitled “What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?” The topic is one we stumbled upon three years ago, when my colleague Ashley Thorne became curious about how widespread such common reading programs really were. We started compiling a list, which we published, and to our surprise we became the go-to source on who is assigning what. The new report is our third in the series and the most ambitious as we try to figure out what themes, formats, and other features go into turning a book into a college common reading.

The patterns are not subtle or elusive. Contemporary writing is king: 97 percent of the colleges assigned books published in or after 1990. Cinema is regent: at least 66 of the 190 assigned books have film versions. Translation is unwelcome: only six of those 190 books were first written in a language other than English. Me first: memoir was by far the most popular genre, accounting for 92 of the 190 titles. Non-fiction rules: 71 of the colleges assigned fiction, while 242 assigned non-fiction.

Those findings are, from my perspective, lamentable but not likely to kick up much controversy. What’s lamentable about them is the scant attention to important books, let alone classics; the relentless emphasis on the short-term and easily accessible; and the dominance of books that emphasize personal perspectives over efforts to know the world as it really is. Literature is not entirely neglected but it is overshadowed by what are now called (courtesy of the Common Core State Standards) “informational texts.” The common readings taken collectively are uncommonly light readings for students about to undertake a college education.

But then again, the colleges themselves say the purpose is to “build community.” Some do add words to the effect that they aim to prepare students for the intellectually demanding books that lie ahead, though the results aren’t very convincing. Indeed, there may not be so many intellectually demanding books in the semesters to come. For all too many students, after the airy beach balls of summer come the Macy’s Parade of books by Howard Zinn, Carol Gilligan, Barbara Ehrenreich, etc.

Which brings me back to Rebecca Skloot. What kind of book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? And why is it so popular as a common reading? 

One important part of the answer is what Skloot’s book is not. It is not a Zinn-like picking of choke cherries to excoriate America’s past. It isn’t a Gilligan-like voicing of tendentious claims that girls are better than boys. It isn’t an Ehrenreich-like venture in class warfare. It is, rather, a highly readable, well-researched work of journalism, touched with a bit of the long-since-mainstreamed “new journalism” of writers like Tom Wolfe and John McPhee, though nowhere close to their imaginative power. We see the writer at her work of research and composition. As Skloot herself becomes part of the story, the reader is critically disarmed. We want her to succeed, and this is surely one of the positive reasons for colleges to assign the book. Skloot’s success in her pursuit is just plain encouraging.

But there is more to it. Skloot’s book is winsome but it is also an indictment. At its core it presents the American medical establishment as aloof, unfeeling, and racist. It is a book that is meant to stir racial grievance and it accomplishes that goal without resort to inflammatory language or heavy-handed tactics. We are meant to feel sorry for Henrietta and her family, who remain poor while presumably millions upon millions of dollars based on exploitation of the HeLa cells flow through research labs here and around the world. Is that disparity fair or is it unjust? We can force ourselves to ask the question but the book works by positing an implicit verdict: of course it is unjust. The Lacks family is owed something.

The larger context for this assignment would seem to me the tilt of American colleges and universities to a preference for national health care in the vein of Obamacare or a more stringent single-payer system. The view conveyed in The Immortal Life is that the biomedical establishment is arrogant and that its implicit racism goes way back and way down. The Johns-Hopkins Hospital which took Henrietta’s cells and where she died was after all a charity hospital whose public wards, Skloot tells us, were “filled with patients, most of them black and unable to pay their medical bills.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks commands the heights of the college common reading programs because it fits with the political narrative that most of our colleges prefer: America is an unjust nation that has an endless amount of atoning ahead for the ways it has exploited the weak, the poor, and minorities. Henrietta Lacks was all three: weak, impoverished, and black. Her descendants continue to suffer the legacy of her lowly status.

The ascendency of Skloot’s book is not an aberration. Most of the books assigned in the common reading programs similarly serve to soften up students for the PC juggernaut they are about to encounter. Ninety-four of the 318 common reading assignments deal with multiculturalism, immigration, racism, or poverty in America. Eighteen deal with animal rights. Fourteen with political activism. Twelve with women’s issues. Nine with environmentalism. The world outside topics like these barely registers. Books loosely classified as “classics” (e.g. Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) make up all of five assignments out of 318. For the purposes of college common reading, the past 3,000 years of Western history might as well not exist, and the written accomplishments of non-English speakers, European or otherwise, have likewise been brushed aside in favor of acquainting students with what are judged to be the political urgencies of our times.

This is a mistake even if—unlike me—you think the topics that are emphasized really are urgent. At the beginning of their college studies, students deserve a taste of the real thing: books that ask from the reader more in the way of effort than their high school assignments demanded; books that will have lasting value for them in their courses and in their lives; and books that treat them as thinking adults who can come to grips with the complexity of the world.

What common readings have devolved to, unfortunately, is all too often soft manipulation, where sentiment, empathy, and affinity displace both careful analysis and imaginative scope. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks isn’t a bad book. Very few of the books in the common readings are bad in the sense of being poorly written or dull. But most of them fall well short of excellent. Students who arrive at college having little in common can benefit from a common reading that gives them a preliminary shared intellectual focus. But colleges can do a lot better in picking the books.

I am not just a spectator at this game. A few years ago as provost of a small liberal arts college, I too had a common reading program. I assigned Melville’s The Confidence Man in one round, and Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in another. These were demanding books, but they did what they were supposed to do: they gave the students a fair taste of what was to come and a strong sense of accomplishment. And they put the students in the midst of conversations that, if not immortal, will continue for the rest of their lives.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is, at one level, a book about debts that span generations. Common reading programs might be thought of that way too. We should pay up.

A version of this article originally appeared on The Chronicle of Higher Education's The Conversation.



Image: Pexels, Public Domain

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