World Book Nightis a celebration of reading and books which will see tens of thousands of people share books with others in their communities across America to spread the joy and love of reading on April 23. Successfully launched in the U.K. in 2011, World Book Night got its start in the U.K. last year, and is kicking off in the U.S. for the first time this year, with hopes of spreading further across the world each year.
Why April 23? April 23 is UNESCO’s World Book Day, chosen because it is the anniversary of Cervantes’ death, as well as Shakespeare’s birth and death. UNESCO’s homage, actually called World Book and Copyright Day, is celebrated as an opportunity to “pay a worldwide tribute to books and their authors on this date, encouraging everyone, and in particular young people, to discover the pleasure of reading and to gain a renewed respect for the extraordinary contributions of those who have furthered the social and cultural progress of humanity.”
According to UNESCO, the idea for the celebration originated in Catalonia (Spain) where it has become a tradition to give a rose as a gift for each book purchased. Here in the U.S., and in the U.K., World Book Night is celebrated by giving – a book! I’m a World Book Night Giver, and on Monday night at Westfield Citrus Park Mall , I’ll be giving away copies of one of the most interesting and thought provoking books I’ve read in years – the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.
The story of Henrietta Lacks is one that has developed like a gathering storm over the last 60 years, the far reaching and pertinent tale of a black woman whose cells – identified as HeLa cells – were taken with her knowledge or that of her family’s in 1951, and became one of the most important tools in medicine because of their incredible ability to be continually cultured. HeLa cells have been vital to the development of the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more, lucrative to tune of billions of dollars even though her family today can’t afford health insurance. Described as ” a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew, ” the story of Henrietta Lacks and her immortal HeLa cells remains deeply relevant to all of us.
Just today, in a Wall Street Journal story titled in part, “Lab Mistakes Hobble Cancer Studies,” HeLa cells are evoked for their virulent properties that are as responsible for compromising important research as they are for being instrumental in the development of cures and treatments of illness and disease. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Cell repositories in the U.S., U.K., Germany and Japan have estimated that 18% to 36% of cancer cell lines are incorrectly identified. Researchers at Glasgow University and CellBank Australia found more than 360 such mistaken cell lines, including 100 that turned out to be the late Ms. Lack’s cervical cancer cells.”
Besides the fact that it’s beautifully written, and relatively easy to read, I was also moved by its message of how deeply connected we can be to complete strangers, by how much of our lives we may owe one another, without even being aware of it. I think the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is appropriate and powerful book to give to others. I think one of the most important things I can do as a writer is evoke thought and hopefully inspire action. I think the action that this book inspires is simply the act of acknowledgement – the acknowledgement that common thread running through our lives is our shared humanity.
I can’t think of a better way to reconnect with that common ground than by sharing the gift of thoughtful literature.