The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | April

The UN Youth Book Club highlights a non-fiction book every month to inspire you to read and learn more about the world. We’d love for you to participate in discussion in the comments below or on Facebook!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot

Summary

Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

The journey starts in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, her small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo. Today are stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, East Baltimore children and grandchildren live in obscurity, see no profits, and feel violated. The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Goodreads

Thoughts on the book:

In many ways, this is a story which should never have been told. These days it is unthinkable that a participant in a medical study would have their name made public, and that’s assuming they gave consent in the first place.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks explores the science and innovations that have come from the HeLa cells, taken from Henrietta, but the most important part of the book is the story of Henrietta and her family. You can’t divorce the treatment of Henrietta Lacks, by the medical community, from her identity as a poor, under-educated, African-American woman in the 1960s. The book is a unique exploration of Henrietta’s family, poverty, injustice and mental health. It demonstrates that we can’t just see science as an objective view of the world, divorced from the complexities of privilege and society.

If all of that hasn’t convinced you, then check out the trailer below for the HBO movie version of the book, which is being released this month.

Next month:

Read ahead for May
Read ahead for May

May

The Glass Universe
Dava Sobel
Get the Book →

I Contain Multitudes | March

The UN Youth Book Club highlights a non-fiction book every month to inspire you to read and learn more about the world. We’d love for you to participate in discussion in the comments below or on Facebook!

I Contain Multitudes
Ed Yong

I Contain Multitudes is a really fascinating look at the world of microbiology for the uninitiated. We spend so much of our lives surrounded by dettol and hand sanitiser and promises of bench spray killing 99.9% bacteria but I’ve never really had a chance to think about how bacteria actually affects our lives.The book gives an insight into the world of bacteria, and the 99% of microbes that aren’t trying to kill us. It’s an easy read full of stories of science that will make you rethink your place as a mammal in the world.

Summary
Every animal, whether human, squid, or wasp, is home to millions of bacteria and other microbes. Many people think of microbes as germs to be eradicated, but those that live with us—the microbiome—build our bodies, protect our health, shape our identities, and grant us incredible abilities. In this astonishing book, Ed Yong takes us on a grand tour through our microbial partners, and introduces us to the scientists on the front lines of discovery.

Yong, whose humor is as evident as his erudition, prompts us to look at ourselves and our animal companions in a new light—less as individuals and more as the interconnected, interdependent multitudes we assuredly are. The microbes in our bodies are part of our immune systems and protect us from disease. Those in cows and termites digest the plants they eat. In the deep oceans, mysterious creatures without mouths or guts depend on microbes for all their energy. Bacteria provide squids with invisibility cloaks, help beetles to bring down forests, and allow worms to cause diseases that afflict millions of people.

I Contain Multitudes is the story of these extraordinary partnerships, between the creatures we are familiar with and those we are not. It reveals how we humans are disrupting these partnerships and how we might manipulate them for our own good. It will change both our view of nature and our sense of where we belong in it.

Goodreads

Next month:

 

April

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot
Get the Book →

The Dictator’s Handbook | February

The UN Youth Book Club highlights a non-fiction book every month to inspire you to read and learn more about the world. We’d love for you to participate in discussion in the comments below or on Facebook!

The Dictator’s Handbook
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita & Alistair Smith
Get the Book →

Summary
For eighteen years, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith have been part of a team revolutionizing the study of politics by turning conventional wisdom on its head. They start from a single assertion: Leaders do whatever keeps them in power. They don’t care about the “national interest”—or even their subjects—unless they have to. This clever and accessible book shows that the difference between tyrants and democrats is just a convenient fiction. Governments do not differ in kind but only in the number of essential supporters, or backs that need scratching. The size of this group determines almost everything about politics: what leaders can get away with, and the quality of life or misery under them. The picture the authors paint is not pretty. But it just may be the truth, which is a good starting point for anyone seeking to improve human governance.
Goodreads

Thoughts on the book:
This book was always going to be on our book club reading list, but after the week that’s been, it seems especially relevant. In particular, the book highlights how countries that outwardly appear to be democratic, can slide into authoritarianism. It discusses the issues that come from cracking down on freedom of speech and of the press, and the ways in which leaders can seemingly fair elections.

The authors also offer a damning argument against international aid for struggling countries. They suggest that it achieves little except to keep despots in power. Similarly, the book discusses why democracies are bad at promoting democracies in other countries, by showing the incentives democratic countries have to undermine democracy in other countries.

Amid the doom and gloom, however, the authors offer hope by outlining concrete methods for promoting democracy and encouraging leaders to improve their countries for the benefit of all their citizens. For all the UN Youth members who have come to our Model UNs before, some of these ideas might inspire you to think differently about international public policy and problem solving.

If you’re still unsure whether you want to read the book, get started with the video below which goes over some of the main arguments. Be sure to comment below or on Facebook with your thoughts on the book, and we’ll see you next month!

Next month:

March

I Contain Multitudes
Ed Yong
Get the Book →

Introducing the UN Youth Book Club!

In 2017, UN Youth is going to be running a book club for our members, each month we’re going to spotlight a different non-fiction book to inspire you to read about a different aspect of the world. We’d love to hear your thoughts as we go along, either through Facebook or by commenting on our Blog. Below you can find the books for the first half of the year, if you want to get a head start!

February

The Dictator’s Handbook
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita & Alistair Smith
Get the Book →

March

I Contain Multitudes
Ed Yong
Get the Book →

April

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot
Get the Book →

May

The Glass Universe
Dava Sobel
Get the Book →

June

Doing Good Better
William MacAskill
Get the Book →

July

Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Get the Book →