I just finished reading Hope Jahren’s forthcoming book Lab Girl, due out April 5. It’s somewhere between a popular science book and a memoir – two tricky genres. Either one, done poorly, can feel like impenetrable jibberish or self-indulgent navel-gazing. Luckily (though I suspect luck has nothing to do with it), Jahren handles both styles well.
Since most people read a book review to decide whether they want to read the book in question, I’ll give you some idea of what to expect from Lab Girl. Let’s start with the sciencey part.
Science books written for a general audience tend to focus on doing any of three things: inspire, educate, or dazzle readers with interesting tidbits of scientific trivia. This book has elements of all three.
Jahren hits the “inspire awe in the world around us” part right off the bat, telling readers in her prologue just how amazing trees actually are.
The book also tells readers how all sorts of things work. Want to know what the deal is with cactus spines? You’re in luck. Want to know how X-ray diffraction can tell us precisely what something is made of? You’re in luck again.
As for trivia, Jahren scatters random chunks of information throughout the book. Fun fact: a maple tree the height of a street lamp has about 35 pounds of leaves, which collectively contain enough sucrose to bake three pecan pies. (Or so I’m told.)
While Jahren does a good job of making soil science interesting for a lay reader (which is no mean feat), the scientific focus of the book is on plants. Jahren is a plant enthusiast, and waxes rhapsodic on everything from willows and hackberry trees to mosses and a spunky little radish named C-6.
In fact, plant biology is central to the way the book is organized. Chapters focused solely on plant growth, reproduction and survival are interspersed with the chapters about Jahren herself – the life of plants serving as a counterpoint to the life of a scientist. This device could easily have become clunky, but Jahren does it deftly. The scientific interludes are part of the rhythm of the book, bridging the biographical gaps in a way that helps the overall narrative run smoothly.
You might think that a scientist’s memoir would consist primarily of recounting research triumphs, exciting tales of adventures in the field, and the hard work that ultimately led to academic or scholarly success. And, in the case of Lab Girl, you’d mostly be wrong.
A quick note about Jahren: her research CV is pretty darn impressive. She’s a geobiologist and has won both the Donath Medal and the James B. Macelwane Medal (which you’ve probably never heard of, but are pretty hot stuff if you’re an earth science person). She’s also won a bunch of other stuff, published scores of papers, and could certainly fill a book writing only about her victories.
But she didn’t.
Instead, Jahren writes about why she became a scientist, and about how hard it is to keep a research lab – and a career – afloat.
The most exciting adventures she recounts from the field focus not on perilous trips into remote regions, but on visiting a monkey-themed tourist attraction and getting into a car accident on the way to a conference (both of which are good stories, by the way).
I mention this because the challenges that Jahren does write about are the ones most likely to keep real scientists up at night: getting enough grant funding to pay her team; grappling with mental health issues; acknowledging the personal sacrifices it takes to succeed as a scientist; dealing with sexist bullshit (my term, not hers).
Sound mundane? It’s not. She’s a gifted story-teller. Every anecdote is no longer than it needs to be, and all of the stories feel like they are there for a reason, fitting neatly into the book as a whole.
The book is also a chronicle of Jahren’s professional and personal partnership with Bill (whose last name isn’t given in the book). Their careers are inextricably intertwined, and the evolution of their partnership is heartening and often comical. Everyone should have someone they can rely on so completely. (And just so you don’t get the wrong idea about my use of the word “partnership,” they are not romantically involved in any way. And while I wish I didn’t have to write that sentence, I’m pretty sure I do.)
Book Versus Blog
Some of you may be familiar with Jahren’s blog, Hope Jahren Sure Can Write, where she writes – as she puts it – “about interactions between women and men and Academia.” (The blog’s name is apt; Jahren writes like a runaway train.) If you’re a fan of the blog, and you are hoping that Lab Girl is written in the same style, you’re in for disappointment. The differences between the blog and the book go beyond subject matter.
To be clear, the writing in Lab Girl is also exceptionally good. The biggest difference is pacing. Her blog has a sense of urgency; Jahren’s writing there has more energy than a tent revival. The book, on the other hand, feels like she’s telling the reader stories that she’s been thinking about for a long time, and those stories unfold at a more measured pace. The book does have the narrative momentum necessary to keep a reader turning pages, but the breakneck speed is gone. (Which is just as well; the hurtling pace of her blog prose would be exhausting over the course of almost 300 pages.)
With luck, Jahren will keep blogging – I love the headlong rush of her online writing, and the subject matter is important. But here’s hoping that she continues to make time for the printed page as well. She’s a writer who has found her voice, and I’m interested in what else she has to say.