Rebecca Skloot is the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a best-selling account of how one 1950s cancer patient unwittingly spawned many medical breakthroughs. A film adaptation, starring Oprah Winfrey, premieres April 22 on HBO.
Best books...chosen by Rebecca Skloot
Love at Goon Park by Deborah Blum (Basic, $18). This is a wonderful and compulsively readable character study of Harry Harlow, the scientist whose amazing, often disturbing, research on primates provided crucial insight into child-rearing.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16). Carson’s book is one of the most important pieces of science writing ever published. The author was fearless in her pursuit of scientific truth, and with this book, she helped shape our modern understanding of environmental science and activism.
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $15). In an incredible story of cultural miscommunication and of a tragic clash between scientists and nonscientists, a girl born to a Hmong refugee family in California meets a heartbreaking fate. It’s a dramatic and important story that Fadiman tells without demonizing either the doctors or the family, and it was an early model for me as I wrote The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
In the Name of Eugenics by Daniel J. Kevles (Harvard, $32.50). I devoured this meticulously footnoted story of scientists who hoped to “improve” the human race by eliminating minorities, “immorality,” and “inferiors,” by means of selective breeding and much worse. It’s an essential chapter of American history that we should never forget.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks (Touchstone, $16) I love anything by Sacks, but especially this collection of essays about his patients and their fantastical array of neurological ailments. He transports himself and his readers into the minds and lives of his patients, reminding us that there are always human beings behind the scientific mysteries.
And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts (St. Martin’s, $22). And the Band Played On is up there with Silent Spring as one of the most influential pieces of science writing. Published in 1987, it changed the way AIDS was understood and treated in the U.S., and did so by combining powerful investigative journalism with beautiful storytelling. The first piece I read by Shilts was a follow-up essay to the book. I finished it and said to myself, “I want to write like that guy.”