Every year, I have a reading binge between December 26, when my holiday actually begins (me being a mom and all, there’s no rest for the weary . . . until December 26) and about January 10, when typically the demands of the new semester start to intrude on my mental space and my time. This year, I will be without the demands of the new semester, but the binge is a form of muscle memory for me, and at about 4:00 yesterday afternoon those muscles kicked in with Book #1: Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl (Knopf, 2016). I finished it today, though I didn’t technically read it. Emma (my daughter, who will show up here frequently, as she’s sort of like my live-in librarian) had downloaded it to our Audible account, and so I listened to it. And knitted half a sweater. This is what counts as “relaxing” in my world.
As much as I found myself wishing I could turn the corners down on some amazing pages–not so easy to do with an audio book–I’m glad I listened to this one, as it was a rare opportunity to hear an author narrate her own work. And what you hear in this case is not just the book she writes, but also the one she doesn’t. There is a tremendous amount of pain and loss that quivers around the edges of the stories she tells; and while I imagine a reader would not necessarily miss that, to hear it in her voice is to become aware of the sadness and frustration of these stories in an almost uncomfortably intimate way.
The book is a potent combination of scientific curiosity, rage, and extreme vulnerability. The scientific curiosity piece of it is utterly compelling. You might not have thought you were interested in paleobotany, but it turns out you are. You really really are. In fact, about a quarter of the way into the book, you are truly wondering why you didn’t go into the sciences when you were an undergraduate. (Oh yeah–because physics.) She taught me so much about trees that I did not know, and that I’m now so very glad to know. Over and over again in the book, I was moved to appreciate what an amazing teacher she must be.
The rage part, though, you–and by “you” I do mean “I”–can completely identify with. There’s one memorable section of the book where she talks about being banned from her lab at Hopkins because she’s taken a medical leave for a very difficult pregnancy and is considered a “liability” by her Chair if she comes in to work at all. “Liability??” she rages to her husband, pointing out that half of her male colleagues are doing things like hitting on their students in their offices. Oh my god, I think, that was my first job out of grad school. Two prominent members of that English department, both of whom had been Chairs, had an annual bet of a case of wine for the guy who could seduce the most students during the academic year. One of those guys, meeting me for the first time in the Faculty Club about six weeks after I’d joined the department, greeted me with, “Oh, you’re Lisa Schnell. I’ve heard you’re a real prick.” So many things about that were just so wrong–I alternated between finding it hilarious, and thinking it actionable. (I was so happy when I joined UVM’s English Department and found none of the above–it was a relief to know that it can be otherwise). So yeah, when she chokes up with anger as she tells stories of the bad behavior–particularly directed to her as a woman–she’s encountered during her career, I want to give her a big hug and thank her for telling the truth.
But it’s not finally an angry book, even though she pulls no punches when it comes to the treatment of women in science. It is a book about love, and loyalty, and loss, and loneliness. It is intensely personal, even while there are stories that she seems quite deliberately to be eliding. In fact, one of the things I really admired about the book was the way that Jahren keeps the volume pretty low on the confessional dial. She proves that it is possible to be vulnerable and entirely authentic as a memoirist without “over sharing.”
The other thing I had cause to admire over and over again was her unpretentious, utterly beautiful prose. Wow. Every sentence is just about as perfect as a sentence can be.
The only problem now is deciding what should come next. The bar has been set very high. On the other hand, I got eight books for Christmas, all from people–like Emma, who gave me four of them–whose taste in reading material is impeccable. Which means, by the way, “without sin.” Here’s to a sinless binge . . .