Lab Girl by Hope Jahren was published earlier this year in April, to the immense delight of the world.
I cannot take credit for ‘discovering’ this book; my undergraduate research adviser, a truly phenomenal scientific mentor, gave me a copy with a very heartfelt inscription for graduation. It was a touching gift in the thoughtfulness – this professor had attended my senior reading for my Creative Writing major and listened patiently to my series of poems on Sugar Maple trees. After attending, she knew this book was perfect.
I would argue, however, that Lab Girl is not just perfect for young women headed to graduate school, studying ecology and with a peculiar love for writing about trees. Lab Girl is perfect for everyone. From the first page, Jahren introduces her readers to the most fundamental aspects of science, welcoming them into the book with an almost maternal nurturing. While this beginning may feel a little slow for some scientists, these pages set the tone for Jahren’s writing throughout – patient, thoughtful, inclusive, and aware.
I could tell you about the stunning imagery that makes you pause and close your eyes to better savor her words, the evocative chapters on plants that would touch the heart of the most apathetic person, the masterful writing and good humor, the balance between life’s happiness and its darkest points, the organization and pacing that create pages smooth and suspenseful – pages that turn themselves. I could tell you about the unusual awareness that permeates the novel as Jahren deals deftly with her past thoughts (recalled with impeccable detail), with present thoughts full of the uncertainty of an unknowable future, with even your thoughts and predictions. She is unflinchingly honest and this honesty is incredibly thought-provoking.
But all of these things are simply what make Jahren, to me, an amazingly capable writer. This is nothing truly special; there are hundreds of incredible, awe-inspiring writers like Jahren. What sets her apart is the way she engages her readers in the science, how she draws such perfect parallels between the science and lives of plants and her life/our world. Jahren is utilizing a new category of metaphor, one that she shows us has been grossly under appreciated in the past: the metaphor of real science. Jahren chooses not to underestimate her readers’ intelligence and gives us science intertwined with life so intimately that we cannot unravel them and instead must revel in the beauty and passion of that deep and beautiful connection.
Overall this book is a must read for everyone, regardless of your interest in or prior level of engagement with science. I can only hope that Lab Girl continues to flourish and inspire and, perhaps, even usher in a new age of popular literature that is rich with real science, pushing our society towards the revolution in our relationship with science that we all desperately need. That’s a lot of pressure for a book, an author; but if Lab Girl teaches us anything, it’s that Hope Jahren sure can do it.