I remember really well when I first heard about Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. I was driving across town between teaching classes, trying to make it to a PreK tour on time. I was listening to On Point on NPR and I heard an interview wherein Jahren read an excerpt of Lab Girl. I had been swearing at the traffic that was making me late, but listening to Jahren read aloud from her book, I burst into tears. She has a line that just cut me right to the quick. It’s from a passage that is a few pages long where every paragaph begins “My lab is…” Here’s the quote I remember bringing me to tears:
There is no phone and so it doesn’t hurt when someone doesn’t call me. the door is locked and I know everyone who has a key. Because the outside world cannot come into the lab, thelab has become the place where I can be the real me. (19)
I had to jog across the street to the school from my parked car, wiping my eyes and sniffing. I made it to my tour just a few minutes late, and I knew I needed to read that book.
I had a baby in December of last year and I finally got my chance to read it this summer when I used my Christmas gift card to Parnassus from my in-laws. It did not disappoint!
(Sometimes I find it extra hard to write about a book I really loved. It’s almost too hard to articulate what my heart is saying, so bear with me.)
Lab Girl is the memoir of a Paleobotanist. She studies ancient plant fossils, and sometimes living fossils. She does some geology, too, but plants are her passion. Her book begins with her as a child in her father’s lab, but it quickly zooms forward and follows her in college, grad school and then working as a researcher and professor at a bunch of universities.
I love the structure of Lab Girl. The chapters alternate between botany and memoir. So, the odd numbers would be chapters about how plants grow, how roots work, how plants communicate. Some of it was basic science, but usually she jumped off of the well-explained basics to talk about cutting edge plant science. But these chapters weren’t like a text book, they were like poetic love letters to trees and plants. I loved reading them.
I also enjoyed the memoir sections. The big themes were never having enough money, being lonely, impostor syndrome, staking your claim as a woman at the table. So, you know, the same issues most professional women I know deal with. That was what was so great and relatable. She was really honest and open to her readers. She talked about her struggles with mental health as well. Those topics didn’t dominate the book, and there were times when she was holding back a bit, but I think she balanced the elements well. The variety made this book a very enjoyable read.
I’m going to use a few excerpts from this with my AP Language students next year. AP Language and Composition focuses on argument, rhetorical devices and language. This book is chock full of lyrical, narrative nonfiction that uses language in powerful ways. I’m actually going to pair a chapter she has on trees to a chapter of Sandra Cisneros semi-autobiographical novel The House on Mango Street, “Four Skinny Trees.”
What I really love about this book is that she is a very poetic, creative scientist. At schools, the disciplines tend to get so segregated and I think that sometimes students feel like you can’t be a creative writer if you are good at math and science, and all poets must hate numbers. Not true! I don’t bring it up often, but I was a very strong math and science student both in high school and college. I got A’s in Chemistry and Calculus in college and loved those classes.
Jahren has a strong sense of character as well. Bill is a huge part of the story and I enjoyed getting to know him. The chain smoking lab tech of her college days was also really vivid and alive on the page.
I also love a book that uses swearing well. This definitely falls into that category. I found myself repeating some lines of dialogue or narration out loud, either because they moved me or made me laugh.
Lab Girl is an excellent read and I highly recommend it, whether or not you’ve ever enjoyed science. In fact, Jahren begins the book by telling you to think of a tree you know or look out your window at a tree. Observe it. Tada! You’re a scientist. Her book was welcoming and warm and I loved it from start to finish.