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2011 Common Reading Announced

NC State’s Common Reading Selection Committee has chosen The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot as the shared summer reading for the entering class of 2011.

Here’s an excerpt from the author’s Web site:

Cover of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"
"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" is the 2011 common reading selection.

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than 60 years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons, as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses and the effects of the atom bomb; 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 remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Va.—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

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  1. (This comment is for Design Culture and Context by Kathleen Reider)

    I went to the convocation where Rebecca Skloot was speaking at about the process she took in developing her book and giving the rising class words of encouragement. One of the things I found most interesting while listening to her talk about her inspirations is that her word flow of her speech transferred identically onto the pages in her book. Her voice seemed exactly as I imagined it in my head. I find this to be a sign of a great author.

    I think NC State selected “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” to be the common reading because it covers so many issues in the medical field from 1950’s to the present including the lack of informed consent and the ethics in medical practice. I believe that NC State wanted new students to become not only aware of these unfortunate situations but also feel obligated to encourage change and justice for those how have suffered under malpractice.

    I feel that this book is relevant to design because design is about learning and reinventing ideas and items from the past and looking forward to the future. This process is true in the context of the book in which the Lacks family is looking for a percent of the financial profit from the HeLa line or at least some medical care or educational scholarships. They were slowly learning from the past and hoping for justice and a brighter future.

  2. For what class do we have to read this book for?

    I know it’s common reading but I met some other freshman who do not have to read this book

    I am a biology major, so do I have to read this for ALS?

  3. Where is the explanation of the intent of what I’ve found referred to as both the “shared summer reading” and the “common reading” program is all about? I’ve searched on both of those phrases as keywords, and click on their respective tags.

    I’m wondering things like:

    – Is there anything else to this program, such as a book club type meeting to discuss the books eventually?

    – What are the backgrounds of the people on this committee?

    – What criteria is used to select the books?

    – What are the past selections?

    …just to name a few. Is any of that information anywhere?


    1. John, thanks for your question. The common reading is a book assigned to incoming freshmen, culminating with a campus appearance by the author during orientation each fall and discussions in selected classes. Here’s a link to how the common reading activities play out, using last year’s selection, “Half the Sky” by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, as an example:

      Here’s a link to the site with information about the selection process, committee members and past selections: I’ve also added both links in the “Digging Deeper” section in the right column above and will be sure to include more background information next time.