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Books are better when shared with a group: Susannah Gal

Posted 10/17/18

Do you enjoy sharing a book with someone else? I love reading. Often my favorites are mysteries and historical fiction based on real events in the past. I find it great fun to share those literary …

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Books are better when shared with a group: Susannah Gal

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot traces the history of a group of scientists learning to grow human cells from the cervical cancer of a Baltimore woman in the 1950s.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot traces the history of a group of scientists learning to grow human cells from the cervical cancer of a Baltimore woman in the 1950s.
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Do you enjoy sharing a book with someone else? I love reading. Often my favorites are mysteries and historical fiction based on real events in the past. I find it great fun to share those literary discoveries with others when I know they have a similar interest or are just looking for a new book to read.

I also really love listening to books on tape when I have long rides in the car. There is something about that type of activity that allows me to get absorbed in the story and not mind the two- to six-hour rides I might be doing alone or with my husband.

We listened to a book recently that was about Sarah Moore Grimké, a woman from Charleston, South Carolina, during the early 1800s. She grew up in a family which had slaves, but eventually became an outspoken critic of slavery, and helped sow the seeds of the women’s movement in this country.

The book, “Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd, was based on a real person, and had chapters from a slave’s viewpoint as well. The sections from the slave’s view included descriptions of the quilts and dresses the women created from a variety of materials. The images and language really brought those people to life for us.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg quoted Sarah Grimké in 1973 when she said, “I ask for no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

I think these books on tape remind me of having stories told to me as a child by my father. My dad, Martin Gal, was an avid writer and media artist, who used his talents to create a number of stories with a main character he called the “Proboscis General.” This was a militaristic grasshopper, I think, with a troupe of other insects that enjoyed lots of exploits. My dad was Jewish and he also wrote a number of dreidel stories that they would send out as their holiday greetings to friends and family.

After I moved out to go to college, my parents started telling stories in schools and community libraries. They were quite unusual as few couples tell stories together. I remember they came regularly to our daughters’ schools to do their show. One of the really fun stories was one they called “Cookie Girl” about a young girl who ate so many cookies she turned into one and rolled down the street, scaring the mail carrier and causing a huge traffic jam. I still remember telling that one with them and all of the accompanying gestures the little kids loved.

They also came to tell stories when we lived as a family in Switzerland. They told the story in English and I translated into French for my older daughter’s class. That time they also told the story “The Lion and the Mouse” about the big cat that pardons the mouse and then gets saved by him later when the mouse eats through a net that caught the lion. The kids loved it when my mother was pretending to gnaw away at the rope and spit out the bits.

Gathering as a group to discuss a common book is a really fun activity. I’ve participated only occasionally in a book club, although understand from a number of my friends that you can really learn a lot by talking about a common resource such as that, gaining everyone’s interpretation and insights.

We are doing something similar this year at Penn State Harrisburg. The office of Student Affairs has the theme of “Discovery” this year and chose a book that brings that theme out in so many ways. The book they chose is “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. This nonfiction book traces the history of a group of scientists learning to grow human cells from the cervical cancer of a Baltimore woman in the 1950s. Henrietta’s cells became the first human ones to grow in a dish, so that scientists could discover the controls normal cells have for growth, the controls that are lost when a cell becomes cancerous.

The book also documents how Rebecca Skloot, a young investigative journalist, discovers the story and meets the Lacks family, then helps them learn the truth about the cells and their impact on science. It’s a very nice book to read. It’s also available as an audio book. Last year, they made a movie of the book that stars Oprah Winfrey as one of the daughters of Henrietta Lacks.

To support the students, staff and faculty in their reading of the book, the Office of Student Affairs has organized a number of events on campus. We’ve had a couple of discussions around other resources related to the book, including one by Dr. Joshua Kesterson from Hershey College of Medicine about cervical cancer. We screened the 2017 movie earlier this month and will again at 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Jan. 22 in the Mukund S. Kulkarni Theatre in our Student Enrichment Center. These screenings are free and open to the public.

There are also a couple of discussion panels scheduled around themes of the book.

On Oct. 22, there will be one with Penn State Harrisburg librarians talking about personal archives, and on Nov. 27 about morality and ethics. Finally, on March 18, there will be a discussion on ethical decision-making in the workplace.

One of the really big events this month is an evening with the author of the book, Rebecca Skloot, and two members of Henrietta Lacks’ family, at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 25.

If you’re interested in that event, registration is strongly encouraged due to the numbers of participants expected. Please contact the coordinator of that event, Perdeta Bush, at 717-948-4393 or plb156@psu.edu.

More events are planned for the spring, so stay tuned and check out the webpage about these activities: https://harrisburg.psu.edu/student-affairs/penn-state-reads

I look forward to seeing you on campus for some of these events. If you have a favorite book to share, please send your recommendations to me!

Susannah Gal is associate dean of research and outreach and a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg, and is a member of the Press & Journal Editorial Board. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in 2015. She can be reached at susannahgal1000@gmail.com.