Top Shelf in May: LAB GIRL by Hope Jahren

This review comes from BookPeople Inventory Manager Jan Day


Shaking off the dregs of winter, we’ve finally shed our coats and exposed our naked limbs to the sun, shining more on our upturned faces. Sunshine is never more welcome than in springtime. (We haven’t been crushed by those three-digit heat waves that will inevitably arrive within a few weeks.) We share this with plants. Plants and humans both open up during the spring.

Lab Girl, a memoir of green life by three-time Fulbright scholar recipient Hope Jahren, begins in the cold winter of Minnesota where Jahren grew up playing in the lab of her earth scientist father. The cold was not limited to the elements, however; Jahren describes the lack of emotion shown within Scandinavian families which eventually led her to building an unusual familial-professional relationship with Bill, a disaffected loner who became her full-time research partner and (sometimes literal) partner in crime.

From frigid Minnesota, Jahren’s memoir warms as she details her life and her life’s work from fighting to be taken seriously as a woman in a STEM field while being a workaholic suffering from manic depression, building new labs in three different states, finding love and raising a child–all in the wake of new discoveries. Chapters alternate between biological lectures on the diversity of plant life, and her own coming-of-age as a scientist; deftly illustrating that all life is related and parallelistic, from the most ancient trees to the youngest human minds and hearts.

Because Jahren so explicitly feels the interconnectedness of things (on a biological, if not spiritual level), her attitude towards her subject is rife with commentary that is just this side of inspiring: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” Even the most excruciating details of the tedious grant-writing process or lab mistakes or awkward (sometimes dangerous) field trips with students are all imbued with color and humor. Jahren details the excruciating grunt work of grant-writing (accounting) all the way to the thrill of simply going afield with a backpack of flasks and field notebooks and waiting for an hypothesis to arise from pure observation.

This is a book about discovery. From the discovery of a young scientist who observes and records something for the first time to the discovery of the wealth of life that inhabits your own back yards. One of the essential questions that Jahren asked of herself and her science early in her career is “what it’s like to be a plant” and that is the foundational question of this book. Through Lab Girl I discovered what it is like to actually care for a plant. The Devil’s ivy I received after I read this book remains, to this day, the first plant that has not only survived my attentions, but thrived. Not because Jahren told me the steps by which to care for this plant, but because she made me understand what it is like to be a plant and how we affect each other.

With Lab Girl, spring has officially arrived. You’ll want to carry this book into the sunshine and dig your bare toes into the dirt. You’ll want to wind flowers and twigs in your hair. You might go out and actually hug a tree.

2 thoughts on “Top Shelf in May: LAB GIRL by Hope Jahren

Leave a Reply to jdcoco Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s