Social Reading Recs: How Social Media Grew My Reading List

We often talk about what we’re reading but not how we choose what we read. The story behind those to-be read lists, however, deserves its share of spotlight.

This past weekend, I went to the Baltimore Book Festival for the first time. Greeted by unseasonably warm weather, throngs of readers strolled among tents featuring authors talking about their works. I attended lectures on editing bon mots,[*] social justice, monsters in modern horror, and food in science fiction. I bought and discussed books whose titles I just learned that day. Being an avid reader, I loved having the opportunity to delve into new topics and books I didn’t know existed. Perhaps the only book-related topic I didn’t hear mentioned was how we find the books we choose to read when we don’t have a handy festival to suggest interesting titles. We often talk about what we’re reading but not how we choose what we read. The story behind those to-be read lists, however, deserves its share of spotlight.

Social Reading Recs: How Social Media Grew My Reading List
Baltimore Book Festival 2017, as seen from the Ferris wheel. (Photo by R. E. Gould.)

Polling the Readers

I’ll admit that this topic that occurred to me well before I sauntered forth to bake in the Baltimorean sunshine amongst the bookish. Perhaps a week or two earlier, I’d been looking over lists of books I read or intended to read and came to the realization that many recommendations came from Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, WordPress, and even (on occasion) Facebook.[†] Being curious, I conducted a small poll on Twitter to find out whether any other readers saw their reading lists expand courtesy of social media. Slightly over half of my respondents agreed that social media helped grow their reading lists, with contemporary fiction writer and blogger Nastasya Parker observing that these recommendations made her reading “even more rewarding”. Novelist Anne Charnock (Dreams Before the Start of Time) concurred, stating that “Twitter is good for book recommendations—from a bunch of people whose recs are pretty reliable”. The remaining individuals divided into those who felt social media hadn’t increased the length of their reading lists (slightly over 25%) and those who were unsure. Arguably, these results could depend on how those individuals use social media. Not everyone goes to Twitter and asks, “Read a good book lately?” or finds people whose reading habits resonate with their own.

Social Reads

I certainly hadn’t expected better to-be read book lists to be part of the bargain when I’d joined some social media outlets.[‡] However, my first Twitter chat revealed the power of the social reading community. When several like-minded individuals gather to talk about books, there’s a good chance for discovering new titles to read. In this case, the July 2016 #women_writers chat focused on reading women in translation, and, as I noted in a different post, I discovered a gap in my reading. It wasn’t long before several books were proposed to remedy that problem. I could (and did) find articles suggesting books to read for #WITmonth (like this one), but receiving multiple recommendations for certain books or authors from this group really identified worthy titles.[§] And I’ve had similar experiences with Instagram (The Reading Women come to mind) and my Goodread reading groups, to name a few.

Social Reading Recs: How Social Media Grew My Reading List. Text by Rita E. Gould
Social reading isn’t just for libraries.
So, spending more time on social media perversely improved my offline reading. Of course, it’s not the only place to find captivating books to read. There’s reviews (in print and online), best-seller lists, and so forth. There’s even the simple expedient of walking into the local library or bookshop and checking out what’s on display. Social media, however, makes it easier to connect with people who share your reading tastes and make reliable recommendations. Reading tends to be a solitary pursuit, but looking for new books to read needn’t be lonesome.

Has social media improved your reading list? Let me know and share your suggestions for a good read!


[*] The Old Editor Says: Maxims for Writing and Editing by John E. McIntyre.

[†] I also created an imaginary click-bait link: “How Twitter Improved My Reading Life!” (In my head, titles like this seem to read by an old-timey news broadcaster). Naturally, should this article have existed, it would have parodied articles devoted to improving one’s romantic/sex life.

[‡] Except Goodreads. Because that’s rather the whole point, isn’t it?

[§] Two different Goodreads groups recommended works by Han Kang (either The Vegetarian or Human Acts), as did Twitter chats and various Instagram posters. Both books were compelling, challenging reads.

Blogging While Traveling in Alaska: Amusing Missteps and Lessons Learned

Travel is remarkable for the sights we witness as well as the experiences we gain. We discover how capable we can be with less as well as how to negotiate difficulties we encounter.

Traveling with Limited Tech

I tend to take vacations with few electronic devices, particularly when boarding an airplane restricts my carry-on space. Since sightseeing and other outings occupy most of my time,  jotting ideas into a notebook or tapping a brief note into my phone works well enough to let me leave my laptop home. That is, until I started this blog and the inevitable conflict between my posting schedule and holiday plans arose. Knowing I would be traveling for almost two weeks, I decided to write at least one post while I was away[*] and began planning what I would discuss. Even with limited Internet access while traveling in Alaska (with a few excursions into Canada), I reasoned that blogging should be manageable.

Blogging with minimalist equipment (ie, my tablet), of course, would be less comfortable than usual, but swapping hiking boots for a laptop wasn’t an option here. So I went about my normal packing routine,[†] until my spouse appeared holding what looked like a restaurant menu. It proved to be his spare wireless keyboard, which he said made typing easier for him when he used a tablet. We soon had it connected, downloaded MS Word to my tablet, and typed a test sentence or two. And just like that, I had a serviceable mobile writing set up. Before starting his own packing, he suggested that I experiment with using it, to see how everything worked together.

Blogging While Traveling in Alaska: Comedic Missteps and Lessons Learned by Rita E. Gould
It might like look the wine list, but it happens to be a wireless keyboard. (Photo by R. Gould)

I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that, harried by travel prep, I didn’t get around to doing so. And thus I made the first in a series of eventually amusing missteps.

Roaming and Writing

Several days later, I sat perched at a makeshift desk in my temporary quarters and began to write in earnest. The keyboard, however, didn’t share my enthusiasm. Roughly every third keystroke didn’t register, forcing me to correct countless typos. As I forged onward at a glacial pace, my napping spouse awoke[‡] and insisted I use his wireless keyboard instead. With functional equipment, I finally made progress writing. All went well until I tried switch over to the WordPress app. The app I had on my phone, not my tablet. And on my phone, I realized, I didn’t have MS Word, meaning neither device had all the software I standardly use for blogging.

This is much funnier in retrospect.

Blogging While Traveling in Alaska: Comedic Missteps and Lessons Learned by Rita E. Gould
The speed of typing on a semi-defective keyboard seemed oddly familiar after Mendenhall Glacier. (Photo by R. Gould.)

The complicating factor (because it’s not ridiculous until there’s complications) was the spotty Internet connection I mentioned earlier. While this was a minor inconvenience on occasions when I, for example, wanted to check whether sea mammals happened to be baby Orcas or dolphins (they were Dall’s porpoise), I truly missed the Internet when I realized I couldn’t use it to quickly fix my difficulties by downloading the apps I needed or by transferring the documents between devices. My choices involved making two trips to the Internet café (expensive and time consuming) or finding another solution. Feeling frazzled, I decided to forgo the fancier formatting MS Word gave me, connected the keyboard to my phone, and retyped the essay directly into the WordPress app. At least that went smoothly thanks to the new keyboard.

Blogging While Traveling in Alaska: Comedic Missteps and Lessons Learned Text by Rita E. Gould
I missed Google when I couldn’t use it to identify sea mammals (here, Dall’s porpoises) but not as much as when I realized I needed to download WordPress. (Photo by Jeremy Henderson. Used with permission.)

Uploading in Its Time

But my Internet woes were not done. I still needed to look up two URLs for the articles I wanted to link to my post. So, I found the Internet café, agreed to pay the pricey access charges, and waited for the slow connection to upload my files. Once that was accomplished, I added the links, waited forever for the app to update…and discovered  that some of the text I linked to an URL mysteriously disappeared. I fixed the text (itself a tedious process), updated again, and waited to see the corrected page. Satisfied that everything looked right, I logged off. I’d officially posted my first blog while traveling!

It wasn’t until I returned home that I discovered that last update apparently didn’t go through, and the version with errors went live.[§] *sigh*

Blogging and Travel

Despite my dearth of preparation and sundry mishaps, I nonetheless succeeded in posting to my blog while on the road. Travel is remarkable for the sights we witness as well as the experiences we gain. We discover how capable we can be with less as well as how to negotiate difficulties we encounter. In my case, I gained several insights into how I can improve my writing experience for my next journey, which I’ve listed here for future reference.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Check both writing devices and software before leaving, making certain that you have both the necessary apps and peripherals (including chargers) for your device. Confirm that your setup works before stowing it in your bag but consider what your options will be if something goes wrong anyway.
  2. Test uploading and editing posts[**] from your mobile devices to find issues before you travel. I’ve used the WordPress app on my phone to reply to comments and make minor edits previously, so I knew differences existed between the mobile and desktop versions. Having a more accurate estimate for how long it takes to upload and edit posts, however, would have been helpful.
  3. When possible, copy URLs and download images/videos to your device in case you need to work offline. You can embed these items in your offline draft (as I did with my post’s image) so that they upload with the text, thus streamlining the process.
  4. If free Wi-Fi and mobile reception aren’t options, plan for long load times and buy Internet access accordingly—something I did right.
  5. Choose a topic and outline/plan what you want to write in advance. Even if you intend to discover your topic as you travel, it doesn’t hurt to brainstorm beforehand.[††] Expending less effort on prewriting ultimately proved beneficial when everything else went wrong.
  6. Try to laugh at travel writing and its misadventures, because tech issues and other unplanned hassles occur even when you are prepared.


[*] Given a less packed summer schedule, I’d have written posts before traveling. Perhaps next time.

[†] Oscillating between the worry I forgot something and the fear I brought too much.

[‡] I cannot confirm or deny that muttered profanity played a role in ending his nap.

[§] Thanks to everyone who liked my post despite the errors. For the record, they’re gone but I won’t forget them any time soon.

[**] I recommend marking the post as private if you don’t want it to be seen.

[††] I’d had the idea to write about reading while traveling since I’d written about reading in preparation for travel, recalling (to my chagrin) dragging heavy books to exotic locations, only to neglect reading them.

The Slipperiness of Resolve: the Mid-Year Reading Resolution Check-In

But why haven’t I finished several books I fully intended to read just yet? Simply put, other books beckoned.

The Slipperiness of Resolve: the Mid-Year Reading Resolution Check-In Text by Rita E. Gould
How do your reading resolutions stack up against your to-read list?
Following weeks of temperatures in the 90s and 80s, January’s cold seems distant as I contemplate the resolutions I made in that darker month. The resolutions in question, of course, are reading ones. With more than half the year gone, I reviewed the list of books I planned to read. Surprisingly, I discovered that I read exactly two books listed, with a third started (Beloved by Toni Morrison). A number I might find disappointing, had I not read (and wrote about) several other books since the list’s genesis.

The Power of Other Books

But why haven’t I finished several books I fully intended to read just yet?[*] Simply put, other books beckoned. I belong to online book groups that discuss a few novels every month. These books tend to inspire blog posts, so I place them a bit higher on my reading queue. I also visit my local library to encourage my child’s burgeoning reading habit.[†] Browsing the shelves allows me to find fascinating books I might not have otherwise encountered (The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami).[‡] There’s also my own evolving reading goals: books I want to read for an upcoming trip, books gifted to me, and other projects that pop up (the #readingwomenmonth, to name one).

Weaker Resolve

In the interest of strict honesty, there are a few books I’ve delayed reading or finishing. Whether the book’s density or subject matter required more attention than I could provide, I returned these to the “to-read” stack. For now. Some books I forgot I wanted to read because I made the list so long ago. Other books I put aside because they didn’t suit my reading environment. When I want to read in a car or at the pool,[§] I like reading something that can be interrupted and readily resumed again. And finally, there’s a few books I wanted to see as a movie first, because I suspect I won’t enjoy the movie quite as much if I read the book beforehand (Sorry, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel).[**]

The Slipperiness of Resolve: the Mid-Year Reading Resolution Check-In
I’d like to read Les Misérables at the shore, but the splashing is too distracting.

Reading On

For all that I haven’t yet read, I’m so close enough to achieving the reading goal I set for myself on Goodreads that I will likely increase it. In the spirit of getting there eventually, I’m updating my list with the hope that I get to my unread books—along with several new additions to my list.[††] Included, too, are books I’ve read. Feel free to check links to books I’ve discussed in other posts. As always, happy reading!

2017 To-Read List

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti (in progress)

Beloved by Toni Morrison (in progress)

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett (in progress)

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Human Acts by Han Kang (Translated by Deborah Smith)[‡‡]

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Howard’s End by E. M. Forster

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

2017 Read List[§§]

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Big Fish by Daniel Wallace

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

All the Living by C. E. Morgan (read about it here and here)

Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

A Cold Day for Murder by Dane Stabenow

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō

The Snow Child by Eowen Ivey

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami (Translated by Ted Goossen)


[*] Ignoring the obvious difficulties involved with limited time and the need to sleep, eat, and be present for other people and activities.

[†] As I wrote here, I used to start reading my library books as soon as I sat in the car. It’s thrilling to hear my child turn pages as I drive home.

[‡] Library fines also motivate reading choices, it seems.

[§] Although I enjoyed reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin poolside, it seemed a bit inappropriate. And took longer than reading at home did.

[**] To borrow (misappropriate?) a chapter title from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, “Comparisons Are Odious”.

[††] I’ve got to January, right? And there’s always next year’s list!

[‡‡] For #womenintranslation month, which is in August.

[§§] Most books I didn’t include on this list were books I’ve read or re-read for my child, including books I’ve scouted out well in advance of his transitioning into YA books.

Read it Again, Sam*: Repeat Readers

Part of writing involves the creation of a reading experience.

Goodreads recently rolled out a new feature, one that allowed you to put a “read” book back into your “currently reading” queue, making it easier to acknowledge that you’ve read a work more than once.[†] As a site user and fan of revisiting favorite books, this new feature resonated with me—as well as made me consider re-reading from a writer’s viewpoint. I occasionally think my writing (whether it’s a blog post or poem) is a conversation that I’m having through the written word. And it’s rather exciting to think that someone may well choose to re-read something I penned because they enjoyed “conversing” with me. From this perspective, I became quite curious as to why other people revisit books, stories, and poems again.

Reasons We Re-Read

Arguably, necessity is among those reasons, such as reviewing work-related texts that vary from profession to profession, some of which bears re-reading outside work hours. My education also required me to re-read several books, plays, and poems, sometimes more than once. While I’d be happy to immerse myself in some of those works again, others not so much.[‡] Appearing on multiple teachers’ syllabi, however, suggests a certain greatness of a work—or at least that it’s representative of a style—something that makes it important enough that we’ll see it again.

Most respondents to my poll (hosted here and on Twitter), however, re-read because they enjoy doing so. Fellow writer Sandy Bennett-Haber is a “re-reader of novels” because she finds “comfort in the familiar” and “sometimes because it is just a great story.” Her response dovetails with my reasons for re-reading fiction. I primarily re-read because I enjoyed the story. At other times, re-reading feels very much like a comforting routine. When I read an Agatha Christie mystery again, I know what to expect (regardless if I recall whodunnit) and look forward to that experience. Another reader I informally surveyed indicated he re-read works when he particularly liked a character. The idea that a single character is so well-crafted as to merit a re-read, too, is a compelling reason, one that inspires me to think of ways to make my characters receive such attention.

When Re-Reading Once Isn’t Enough

My poll also revealed that re-readers tend to read a book more than once. I thought briefly about books I’ve re-read multiple times. I often re-read previous book(s) in a series so I can create a seamless reading transition for an upcoming release. Anticipation often colors these re-reading experiences. Yet, certain books draw me to them in a more thoughtful way, in part because their compassion impresses me. I re-read The Last Call (which I discussed here) because it revealed how many viewpoints led to an historical event, something which is helpful thing to recall in contentious times. Still other books reminded me of happy reading experiences. I’m reading favorite books from my childhood to my child: seeing his excitement adds to my pleasure in rereading these books. Now that I’m a more sophisticated reader, I found a few things I didn’t appreciate the first time reading through.[§] As a recent article by Maria Popova reminds us, this goes some way towards the argument that Tolkien and other writers forwarded that children’s literature is just literature. And who wouldn’t want to write something that appealed to wide audience of readers?

Part of writing involves the creation of a reading experience. Whether it’s Edgar Allan Poe’s[**] idea that a short story should produce a single effect on its readers (ie, a singular emotional response) or the multiple experiences that novels produce for us, a writer’s work involves those responses. And it’s those responses, I realize, that make readers truly want to return a text and read again. When I go forward and edit, I want to carry with me the idea that I need to keep this conversation going so that my readers will want to spend time with my writing again and again.


[*] Trivia: This line never was said in the movie Casablanca.

[†] Or twice or who’s counting, anyway? If you use this feature, Goodreads will.

[‡] Why is it always Romeo and Juliet for Shakespeare courses?

[§] I better appreciate the wordplay in Through the Looking Glass than I did when I was younger. I also have the difficulty of explaining it to the young one while sniggering.

[**] In his case, it’s usually horror.

And Now a Brief Word…

Brevity is the soul of wit.[*] (Polonius, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, line 92)—William Shakespeare

Perhaps it’s winter’s elision into Spring, but I feel like it’s time for change, to experiment (a bit) with my writing here at the Sequence. Of late, several posts I’ve written here appear to run on the longer side. While I’ve enjoyed much of what I’ve written, I feel the need for some variation.

Something of a palate cleanser, if you will.

I don’t suggest that terser writing is some sort of literary sorbet. Hemingway, a master of succinct writing, has a short story collection entitled Winner Takes Nothing that neatly summarizes his far from sweet oeuvre.[†] Rather, I’m looking to pare down my writing a bit, try new writing styles, and perhaps write more efficiently. Few writers think they have enough writing time, and I’m no different. It’s this latter goal, working on finding more writing time, that inspired this post. So, here’s my plan for…

…Writing Succinctly to Accomplish More

(1) Short Changing My Words

Recently, I expressed my interest in writing shorter pieces to a friend, and she suggested flash fiction. I haven’t tried flash fiction yet, but the imposed word count (under 1000 words) felt inspiring. Having studied formal poetry, one salient revelation was that restrictions can provoke creativity.[‡] While a word count might seem arbitrary, it requires writers to produce leaner prose while limiting scenes, characters, and action. And similar restrictions could be applied to nonfiction—especially when paired with short-format nonfiction such as the listicle.[§] Choosing a word count, then, could produce sharp, focused writing.

(2) Research Is Revealing

Like many people who blog, I schedule my topics, alternating among my different interests. What I don’t do, however, is plan topics by their development time. If I think a topic needs more research or isn’t “gelled” enough, I move it to a later point. However, I find that my posts often run longer than expected, seeping into time I allotted for other writing projects. And writing several long pieces in a row places more strain on my time to develop future posts. I plan to keep writing posts I enjoy, but I believe that alternating between longer and shorter post can afford both variety and extra writing time for longer works.

So, I checked my word counts and confirmed that my longer pieces (on average, 1300 words) matched my perception of taking longer to write and often longer than estimated. These topics (literary themes, book reviews, etc.) required extensive development in terms of notetaking or research. Yet, my shorter posts, which focused more on personal experiences (usually reading), also happened to be time consuming. My impression that word count and time spent writing were in a proportional relationship wasn’t the whole story. While I had some insight into better scheduling, I needed to investigate my process further.

(3) Structuring My Writing Process—Just a Bit!

I tend to discover my text instead of planning it (ie, I compose at the computer). Typically, my pre-writing is minimal, often involving relevant research and jotting my ideas down. For example, I devoted significant effort to discussing an author’s approach to the orphaned main character trope for a recent book review, something I found interesting but didn’t give readers the flavor of book. Of course, I cut this section, but using an outline might have prevented the need to do so. Outlining also visually demonstrates how lengthy a topic is by the number of points present, giving a rough estimate of writing time needed. Of course, revisions—extensive or not[**]—will occur. Likewise, I expect much of writing will be unplanned.[††] I hope, though, that having a blueprint for my writing in mind will keep from diverting into unnecessary asides.

Off to Write

My course from here is clear: to apply lessons learned. To my surprise, a little writerly navel gazing has proved to be inspiring. I’m looking forward to trying out these ideas (particularly flash fiction), and I’m pleased that I set my first word count (775 words; I finished near 830). Next up, scheduling and outlining the next Sequence. So, if you’ll excuse me, I have some pre-writing to do.

What approaches have you tried for improving your writing? Add your response to the comment box below. Also, sign up to the Sequence newsletter and stay up-to-date with the latest posts.


[*] Polonius adds this quip after a longwinded discussion of wasting time.

[†] Or, as my friends and I joked more than once, his stories were about “Dying alone. In the rain.”

[‡] Robert Frost comes to mind when considering how form can work for a poet.

[§] You’re reading my first listicle post.

[**] Even Hemingway revises extensively: he wrote the ending to Farewell to Arms 39 times because he had difficulties “Getting the words right”.

[††] I’m also certain that I’m likely to continue to tidying up the house when I get stuck. Today’s writing count includes two loads of laundry and unloading the dishwasher.

Science Asides: Ethics in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Recently, I chanced upon an Atlas Obscura article discussing lördagsgodis, the Swedish tradition of indulging in candy on Saturdays. What drew my attention, however, was that title mentioned “human experimentation”. As it happens, lördagsgodis’s roots can be traced to experiments performed on mentally ill patients during the mid- to late 1940s that established sugar’s role in cavity formation. The study, which neither benefited its patients (quite the opposite) nor obtained their consent, was not unique to Sweden.[*] In fact, its ethical issues suggested those raised in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the tale of an African-American woman whose cells, collected without her permission in 1951, led to profound scientific discoveries. Given how deeply this nonfictional account delves into medical ethics, politics, racism, and scientific discovery as they intertwine with the lives of Henrietta Lacks and her family, I will focus on the more poignant moments that exemplify these issues.

History, Ethics, and Human Experimentation

As author Rebecca Skloot observes, patients of US public wards often were unaware that they served as research subjects, something some researchers considered to be an acceptable trade for receiving treatment (29–30). Such patients, particularly impoverished, poorly educated African-American patients living in the pre—Civil Rights era in the United States were unlikely to ask questions: the presumption that physicians “knew best” coupled with widespread racism alone prevented such a thing (Skloot 63). And before the advent of Institutional Review Boards in 1966 (Sparks 2017),[†] research involving human participants did not receive much formal oversight (Skloot 131, 136). What happened to Henrietta Lacks, specifically taking her cancer cells without her knowledge or consent, was both the norm however unpalatable we might find it.

For Henrietta, there were more personal consequences related to the treatment that permitted her cells to be collected. Johns Hopkins, the hospital where Henrietta was treated, standardly informed women of childbearing years that hysterectomy led to infertility—one of the rare instances where patients did receive adequate information from physicians in this book. And yet this did not happen in Henrietta’s case. Her records revealed that she would have refused treatment had she known (Skloot 47–8). And although she would not have lived long enough to bear another child (Skloot 86), the choice should have been hers. The tissue sample collected from this hysterectomy, however, continued to grow long past its expected life: the discovery of an immortal line of human cells had been found (Skloot 40–1).

slacks ethics microscope.jpg

Amazing Discoveries and Uncomfortable Juxtapositions

The importance of Henrietta’s cells (called HeLa) to scientific research is vast. For example, HeLa played a large role in proving that Salk’s polio vaccine worked—and it was African-American scientists and technicians who produced the massive quantities of HeLa cells needed to do so (Skloot 93–7). Yet this achievement also represents one of the most painful juxtapositions in The Immortal Life: the HeLa factory was located at The Tuskegee Institute, a place better known for its infamous syphilis study involving African-American men.[‡] The terrible disparity between HeLa’s role in saving the lives of so many people—regardless of their racial background—and the unnecessary deaths of African-American people is more shocking when you consider that twelve of the Tuskegee study participant’s children still receive benefits (CDC 2017).

Disclosure and Family Distress

Not long after Henrietta was identified as the HeLa “donor” in the early 1970s, the Lacks family discovered that her cells were still alive, a revelation they did not understand and found alarming (Skloot 173, 175–81). Further interactions with researchers did little to improve their understanding. When researchers obtained blood samples from Henrietta’s family to establish genetic markers for HeLa, the Lacks family thought they were being tested for cancer (Skloot 180–4). More alarmingly, the resulting study published Henrietta’s name with her genetic information (Skloot 197–8). And more medical information was revealed about Henrietta without consulting the Lacks family. In the 1980s, her medical records were published, something which caused immense grief for Henrietta’s daughter, as Deborah read intimate details about her mother’s diagnosis and the anguish she suffered before her death (Skloot 209–10). Other family members, however, were angered by the profits made by biomedical companies while their family remained impoverished and could not afford health insurance (Skloot 168, 193).

Thoughtfulness and Modern Ethics

And this is perhaps the most concerning theme that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reveals: thoughtlessness. Mary Kubicek was an assistant who was sent to collect tissue samples during Henrietta’s autopsy in 1951. Unaccustomed to dealing with dead bodies, she focused her gaze away from Henrietta’s eyes. Then, she noticed Henrietta’s painted toenails and realized that Henrietta was an actual person, not just a collection of cells. It was something she had not considered before. It’s astonishing how many researchers (most but not all of whom were white) echoed this refrain and never thought about whether patients and/or their families might have concerns, even after ethical standards were changed. And this best represents what was most needed here, for researchers to think of Henrietta Lacks as a human with rights instead of as HeLa’s source. To think of all patients involved in research as people first.

* * *

Originally, I intended to end where the book does, with the emphasis on the need to see patients as people instead of mere study subjects. Instead, I discovered something of an unpleasant (if unsurprising) postscript: the Lacks family again needed to protest the public distribution of information about Henrietta. In 2013, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory published the genome of a line of HeLa cells to an online database that allowed public downloads of this data. Although no laws were broken (Callaway 2013), it seems the researchers did not consider the ethical implications of making genetic data  publicly available that could be potentially reveal private information about Henrietta’s family (Skloot 2013). The database subsequently was removed and the National Institutes of Health, who also planned to publish a similar paper, established a review board (that includes two of Henrietta’s family members) to determine who will gain access to this genetic information in the future (Zimmer 2013). While this hopefully will provide Henrietta’s family with much needed closure on this topic, questions remain about how geneticists should handle such sensitive data for other patients.

What response did you have to Henrietta’s story? Share it below in the comment section. Also, sign up for the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts.


[*] Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, resided at a facility for mentally ill patients where medical experiments were carried out on the African-American patients living there, again without consent. She likely was a study subject. She died in 1955 (Skloot 274–6).

[†] HeLa also played a role in the formation of these boards. The discovery that researcher Chester Southam had been injecting HeLa cells into patients (roughly half of whom were diagnosed with cancer) without disclosure and consent caused a scandal that prompted the National Institutes of Health to create these boards (Skloot 127–36).

[‡] This study’s notoriety primarily stems from (but is not limited to) the fact that researchers purposefully withheld treatment from patients afflicted with syphilis long after a cure was developed in 1947. Ultimately, most patients died terribly, with many having infected both wives and children (Skloot 50, “Tuskegee Syphilis Study” 2017, CDC 2017).

Works Cited

Callaway, Ewen. “HeLa Publication Brews Bioethical Storm.” Nature (2013): n. pag.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 08 Dec. 2016. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

“Tuskegee syphilis experiment.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Feb. 2017. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

Glasser, Hana. “An Adorable Swedish Tradition Has Its Roots in Human Experimentation.” Atlas Obscura. N.p., 04 Jan. 2017. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2011.

Skloot, Rebecca. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the Sequel.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 23 Mar. 2013. Web. 26 Feb. 2017.

Sparks, Joel. Timeline of Laws Related to the Protection of Human Subjects. National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

Zimmer, Carl. Zimmer, Carl. “A Family Consents to a Medical Gift, 62 Years Later.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 Aug. 2013. Web. 26 Feb. 2017.

“Hidden Science” in the Writings of Franklin & Conan Doyle

Men of method: Franklin and Conan Doyle

Benjamin Franklin. By Joseph Duplessi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
It was my first year of graduate studies, and I found myself re-reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Some time had passed since I read this book in depth,[*] but certain portions remained clear enough in my mind, including Franklin’s ambitious and tongue-in-cheek project to acquire virtues in Part II.[†] As I read through this section, I felt a growing sense of familiarity that was related less to the content and more to the structure of the writing. Franklin’s project followed a pattern that I’d become familiar with while pursuing that other undergraduate degree:[‡] scientific methodology. Reading Part II of The Autobiography was not unlike reading a scientific paper: there was a section on the background and the project’s goal (“moral Perfection”; Franklin 1383), defined terminology, methods delineated (working on acquiring a single virtue on a weekly basis and recording instances of success/failure); results presented and discussed, and a conclusion or two (Franklin 1383–91), ranging from “I think I like a speckled Ax best” (Franklin 1390) to:

But on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was by the Endeavour made a better and a happier Man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it (Franklin 1391).

Obviously, the project to acquire virtue wasn’t, per se, a scientific experiment, but it bore the hallmarks of one.

Elated that I observed something I previously hadn’t noticed, I wrote my short paper for the upcoming class with a reference to my discovery and mentioned it during my brief presentation. I, however, did not expect to be asked which approach to the scientific method had Franklin favored. My professor posed an excellent question, considering that the 17th and 18th century scientific thinkers were in the process of disputing more ancient methods (namely, Aristotelian) for deriving facts (Weinberg 201-14).[§] I, however, knew more about applying the basics of scientific methodology than its history.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Photo by Walter Benington (RR Auction) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Curiously, though, this experience—that is, the feeling I’d come across a familiar format— recurred when I re-read A Study in Scarlet for a recent post. Again, I felt as though I was reading about Sherlock Holmes conducting a scientific study in which he carefully observed the crime scene’s grounds (Conan Doyle 23–4), collected data (measurements at the murder site as well as examination of the murder victims; Conan Doyle 26, 29, 56–7), and even tested his theory that the first murder victims was poisoned (Conan Doyle 58–9). But, there it was: a sort of literary déjà vu featuring the scientific method. While I’m sure I understood that Holmes was both methodical and logical in his approach to detection, I doubt I noted the specific scientific underpinnings in Holmesian detective fiction when I was reading the stories in my early teens. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing I would have considered independently when I was intent on consuming as many mystery novels as I could. And I certainly didn’t have the same ability to read critically as I do now.

Of course, detecting  the presence of scientific ideas in the writings of scientific men (Franklin, a scientist and inventor, and Conan Doyle, a medical doctor) isn’t unexpected, particularly with two individuals whom share the distinction of forwarding scientific study. Conan Doyle’s fiction anticipated the usage of methods that would become central in forensic sciences (eg, preserving footprints, protecting the crime scene from contamination)[††] and inspired forensic science pioneers like Edmond Locard (Steenberg 35).[‡‡] In Franklin’s case, the study of electricity benefited greatly from his attention to it (Chaplin), to put it mildly. Nonetheless, uncovering these connections between very different people writing for very different purposes was satisfying. I wouldn’t go so far to claim that I’ve seen further than some, but perhaps further than I once did.[§§] And I do feel a bit like a sleuth for detecting evidence of scientific thought.

Have you experience literary déjà vu or found some interesting scientific ideas in unexpected texts? Share your experiences below! Also,  sign up for the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts.


[*] High school to be exact.

[†] Spoiler: It’s my favorite part.

[‡] For the curious, I have an undergraduate degree in Literature and one in Environmental Studies.

[§] Numerous sources discuss this critical change in scientific thinking, including the one I cite here (as a physicist, he brings an interesting perspective to exploring this history ). The scientific methodology has a long history and, of course, will continue to evolve as scientific discoveries and thought require it to do so. The link I provide depicts a concise timeline of important known events, dates, and person contributing to this evolution.

[**] Based on my limited research, I’d (tentatively) go with Francis Bacon. Franklin already was familiar with the self-improvement plans of notable intellectuals, including Bacon who was likely the most influential (Lemay 39). Considering that Bacon favored experiments to establish facts (empiricism), I think this dovetails neatly with Franklin’s process here. Oh, and not having an answer didn’t have any negative consequences for my classwork; it was just embarrassing.

[††]  Holmes use of footprint evidence seems amazingly prescient when you consider the SoleMate database of shoe prints.

[‡‡] He apparently encouraged his students to read Holmes stories.

[§§] I’m cheekily referencing Newton’s famous quote: “”If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Works Cited

Chaplin, Joyce E. “Benjamin Franklin’s Science—In Public and Private.” Benjamin Franklin’s Science—In Public and Private. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2017.

Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, Volume 1 and 2. 1920. Reprint. New York: Bantam Classics, 2003. Print.

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography. In: Franklin, Benjamin. Writings. Ed. J. A. Leo Lemay. New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, 1987. Print.

Lemay, J. A. Leo. The life of Benjamin Franklin: printer and publisher, 1730–1747. Vol. 2. Philadelphia, PA: U of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Print.

Steenberg, Lindsay. Forensic science in contemporary American popular culture: gender, crime, and science. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Weinberg, Steven. To explain the world: the discovery of modern science. New York: Harper, 2015. Print.