Open Book is an academic year-long program that engages first-year students and peer mentors, as well as faculty and staff. The initiative is co-chaired by Dr. Thomas Hagan, associate professor of chemistry and assistant dean of the first-year program and BethAnn Zambella, the director of the High Library. Throughout the fall and spring semesters, there are many Open Book-related activities such as films, speakers and small-group discussion, which are led by peer mentors and college faculty to foster critical analysis of the readers over the issues discussed in the book. The goals of the program are to create and to promote a learning community among students and educators by examining a common written work together, as well as to provide the readers with opportunities to evaluate life in different aspects.
The book choice for this year was “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a fascinating and indelible nonfiction work by Rebecca Skloot. The topic of the book is Henrietta Lacks, a mother of five living in Baltimore, a poor African-American from the tobacco farms of Virginia and a cancer victim. Henrietta’s cancerous cells, famously known among biologists as HeLa Cells, were taken without her knowledge or consent and became an important building block for scientists in countless biological breakthroughs, starting with the cure for polio. Henrietta’s family members continued to live in poverty and poor health, and their discovery of her unknown but significant contribution to science left them full of pride, anger and suspicion.
Lisa Margonelli, a book reviewer for The New York Times, wrote in her article “Eternal Life,” published Feb. 5, 2010: “In ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,’ Rebecca Skloot introduces us to the ‘real live woman,’ the children who survived her, and the interplay of race, poverty, science and one of the most important medical discoveries of the last 100 years.”
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” has won many prizes, including the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for nonfiction as well as Goodreads.com’s Reader’s Choice Award for Best Debut Author and Best Nonfiction Book of the Year. In addition, the book was named by more than 60 critics as one of the best books of 2010. Furthermore, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was assessed by the committee of Amazon.com’s book blog Omnivoracious as a written work that is “easy to engage with, and offers opportunities for compelling discussions across a broad range of disciplines, including science and technology, health care, ethics, history, law and public policy, religious studies, journalism and professional writing, psychology, sociology, communications, social work and race, gender and social justice studies.”
The response of the first-year students to “The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” was mixed.
First-year David Nagel said that he really enjoyed the work and was fascinated by the moral issues in the book. He never thought that an ordinary woman like Henrietta Lacks would be responsible for many biological breakthroughs, especially the cure of polio.
First-year Sarah Miller thought the ethical, social and scientific matters in the book related to all aspects of life and connected core courses that Elizabethtown College students needed to take. She recognized the relation between the book and her first-year seminar, as well as her sexuality and gender class.
First-year Ceyda Sablak found the book interesting because it was closely related to her major. However, she thought “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” engaged a small number of first-years, and the book was not able to attract the attention of the first-year community as a whole.
Miller agreed with her peer’s opinion because she felt the book mainly discussed biology and science in general, while she wanted to know more about the family of Henrietta Lacks.
When asked about her suggestion for the book next year, Miller answered that she would like to have a written work that would explain and describe life and make the readers value their lives more. In addition, the book should be something in which the majority of first-year students would be interested. Furthermore, she thought it would be great if the committee provided detailed guidelines and reflection questions to enhance the students’ comprehension of the book.
Nagel shared his opinion about the book for next year, saying that he would like to have a book discussing modern issues, such as poverty, suicide or technology.
Meanwhile, Sablak would like to see a general book, which can engage 60 percent or 70 percent of first-year students.
They all agreed that the College should give the power to choose the books to incoming students so that the new first-years would be involved more with the book as well as the Open Book program.
In response to the queries about the process of choosing the book for next year, Zambella wrote in an email: “The books on the Open Book Research survey are really just ‘bait.’ They were culled from some publisher’s catalogs that target first-year reading programs and personal recommendations from committee members based on their reading or on authors they have met. The survey list was meant to provoke participation from our community and doesn’t necessarily represent any of the goals of the program.” Zambella indicated that potential themes of the criteria include: “service and international engagement; memoirs or coming-of-age stories; books that tie into election year politics or leadership; and themes of social networking, privacy or [the] Internet.”