Book Review: Here is a Human Being: At the Dawn of Personal Genomics by Misha Angrist

This will be a long review, for which I am not at all sorry. The existence of this post is a little bit of an accomplishment for me. In the search of authors to interview, I was introduced to Misha Angrist by his publicist. This was exciting for me, because it put me in touch with an interesting author and person. It was an experience I thoroughly enjoyed. At the same time I was discussing interviewing Misha, I was invited to review the book.

Much to my delight — and surprise — I got an actual copy for review. I’ve owned ARCs before, but never one that was sent to me, for me, for the purpose of reading critically. At least, not in actual, physical form.

I was delighted when it arrived, although it was a little worse for wear due to the rain. Fortunately, the book wasn’t damaged, although the packaging had seen its last days. It held on just long enough to get inside before it lost its ability to hold the book inside of it anymore. It did its job admirably!

Here is some information about the book before I start talking about it.

Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (November 8, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0062074237
ISBN-13: 978-0062074232
Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 5.2 x 0.9 inches


This is the second print run of the book, with a new cover design. The original printing was in hardback.
This edition of the book has a modified introduction. I have not read the introduction of the original version, so I cannot tell you what the differences in these versions are.

After I got the book inside, I took it to my desk and sat down. Just like a kid in a candy store, I opened the book. I meant to just take a little peek, really.

I’m not sure how much time I lost due to this ‘peek’, but by the time I looked back up, I had read enough pages of the book to know I had misplaced time somewhere. I am not someone who goes out and reads a lot of science-related books. I was never good at math, and my level of science is limited to ‘don’t dump water over flaming oil’. If knowledge of science was a precursor for life, I would have been kicked off of the island long ago.

While I was waiting for this book to arrive, there were questions milling about in my brain — distracting, worrisome questions. Would I be smart enough for this book? Would I be able to understand what was going on? How much research would I need to do for this to make sense to me? Genes and genomes are big, big things. They are heavy science. They’re the stuff that people with doctorates talk about in shadowy corners where the plebeians can’t hear what is going on. And make no mistake, I’m just another plebeian of society, for all I like reading a good science fiction.

Perhaps this is the reason — this lack of knowledge, ignorance if you will — that when I opened this book, I didn’t get anything remotely what I expected from it. In fact, it starts off rather normal. It starts with the year that Misha was born.

I had expected some science that I would inevitably have to research just to understand what was going on.

Misha writes of the kind of person he is, and a little about the circumstances that brought this book to life. And by life, I do mean life. If you were to judge the book by the very first page, you would not believe Misha anymore than a simple, normal, average man. And I mean that in the best way possible. He is just another human being.

It is on page two that he begins talking about his mission, and the exposing of his genomes for the public eye. It begins, not a lecture on sciences, on DNA strands and proteins, but rather a story of a few amazing people who have ventured into gray territories to get a better understanding of humans and what separates a healthy human from one who suffers from a genetic disease.

I admit, I had to slow down as i read this book. It isn’t light reading material, but it is well-written, well-explained reading material that is understandable even by people like me who haven’t been in a science course for at least ten years. There were times I had to stop and reference the notes, or I had to refresh myself on some basic scientific principles, but many of the things that should have been confusing weren’t.

Like the stories of the people who’ve worked to make genomes accessible to the public, the story of the science of genomics, the history of the science, and the events that hampered the efforts are brought to light in a way that is easy to understand while being interesting to read.

But, best of all, it isn’t just a book about sciences. It is a book about people. Not all of the stories are happy. But, it shows just why this type of science is important, and served as food for thought for me. It also proved that there are really people behind the sciences, something that isn’t reflected in mass-group studies and most of the science-related news the public is exposed to.

Unlike fiction, I can’t really rate this book by characters or plot. The characters are real people. The plot is life. I will say I found it an interesting, well-written read. I can’t tell you if it stands up to other genomics books, because I haven’t read them. I don’t know how it will stand up against the scrutiny of science lovers and scientists.

Overall, I’m giving this book 4* — there were times where I was confused and had to do research to figure out just what was meant, and slips that are common knowledge for scientists and not so for the average person. The writing is stable and interesting, and Misha Angrist does a good job of bringing a healthy dose of humanity to his writing.

Recommendations: I would recommend this book to teenagers and adults. There is a certain level of science knowledge required, but it is (mostly) the stuff you learn in middle and high school. The only significant issue with this book I had was the high number of references found within it. For those who want to know what those references mean, it involves a great deal of flipping to the end of the book to find out just what is being referenced. It is a challenging read, but one I find well worth the effort. It provoked thought, as well as offered some hope that with access to more genomes available, more individuals will become interested in this form of science to help combat genetic diseases, as well as determine in advance if a youth is likely to develop certain diseases.

If you are interested in purchasing this title, you can do so here.

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