the real kwon (bookelfe) wrote,
the real kwon
bookelfe

As part of my resolution to read more nonfiction, I asked my dad to recommend me some of his nonfiction books when I went home for the 4th last weekend. (For background: my dad is an infectious disease specialist who treats a lot of AIDS patients.) He pulled out his copy of Randy Shilts' And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic and said, "didn't I ever make you read this before?"

The answer being 'no', I read it.

This book is . . . brutal. As you're reading, it starts to feel like just about every chapter ends with a sentence that boils down to "and this INCREDIBLY STUPID DECISION was going to cost thousands of lives later on!" It would come across as melodramatic if it weren't so obviously true. The number of criminally self-interested, oblivious, or just well-intentioned and dumb decisions that lead to the spread of the epidemic is pretty staggering. (The blood banks' utter refusal to admit that AIDS could be spread through blood transfusions until 70% of US hemophiliacs, among others, were infected with HIV is just one blatant example. Of many.)

Randy Shilts was one of very, very few reporters who was assigned to cover AIDS in the early years of the epidemic; the book carefully reports pretty much everything that happened from the time the first people in New York City started falling inexplicably ill until Rock Hudson confessed that he had AIDS in 1985 and all of a sudden - after four years - the US media finally got majorly involved in the AIDS story. (Shilts is scathing about just how ridiculously much of a turning point the first case of official celebrity AIDS was in the fight against the disease, and rightly so.)

Shilts was also a relatively prominent member of the gay San Francisco scene in the 70s and 80s, and although he does his best to keep himself out of the story, it shows. He does an incredible job showing the staggering impact on both the gay community and on the individuals within it, with in-depths portraits of many of those who were infected, and doesn't go into as much detail on several other groups hard-hit by the virus. This is half-fair - at first, AIDS was completely perceived as a gay disease in America, and most of the politics centered around this - and half-not; there's not much at all on the epidemic among Haitians, and when Africa is (sparsely) discussed the focus was almost always on the Brave White Doctors Risking Themselves in language that made me cringe a little.

I was born in 1985, when this book ends (though there's an epilogue updating for 1987, written I think for the second edition.) I only knew the very top layer of this story; in 2009, AIDS is kind of a matter-of-fact reality. Among all the other reasons this book is kind of a gutpunch, it's incredibly chilling to read about the epidemic from the start and realize how much it's affected the society I've lived in my whole life.
Tags: booklogging, randy shilts
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  • (no subject)

    After reading Peter Beagle's Summerlong and being Tragically Unimpressed, I made my book club read Tamsin just so I could remember the Beagles I…

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    As a comfort read project, I've been rereading the Lord Peter Wimsey books for the first time since I was in high school - with the exception of…

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