Big Read’s Lab Girl

By  Michiko Kakutani

Vladimir Nabokov once observed that “a writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.” The geobiologist Hope Jahren possesses both in spades. Her engrossing new memoir, “Lab Girl,” is at once a thrilling account of her discovery of her vocation and a gifted teacher’s road map to the secret lives of plants — a book that, at its best, does for botany what Oliver Sacks’s essays did for neurology, what Stephen Jay Gould’s writings did for paleontology.

Ms. Jahren, a professor of geobiology at the University of Hawaii, conveys the utter strangeness of plants: these machines, “invented more than 400 million years ago,” that create sugar out of inorganic matter — wondrous machines upon which human life itself depends.