A must-read book of 20th century history

By Caitlin Kelly

There are very few book of more than 500 pages anyone wants to tackle!

Let alone one that focuses on an international source of death…

No, not COVID, but AIDS.

I found this book on the shelf at my father’s house on our visit to Ontario in September and had been wanting to read it for many years but hadn’t sought it out.

Then, there, I had time to sit in the fall sunshine and read for hours.

Despite the grim topic and the fact it all happened more than 30 years ago it is a tremendous read — powerful real characters, from death-denying politicians, AIDS activists, researchers in Washington and Paris competing for prestige and power as they sought a vaccine, the individual men and women affected and their families and friends…

It is an astonishing piece of reporting, of history — and so sadly, powerfully prescient of what we’re all enduring with COVID. Of course its author, Randy Shilts, also later died of the disease.

I remember a lot of this because it was also my time.

I was a young and ambitious daily newspaper reporter in the mid 1980s, and so AIDS became part of the work I did for The Globe and Mail and the Montreal Gazette. I lost two dear friends — both gay men — to this disease because, then, it just killed everyone, and they died terrible deaths.

I still remember the names of some of those incredibly dedicated and frustrated doctors doing their best against, then, an implacable enemy.

Dr. Anthony Fauci was one of them.

For millions of closeted gay men, it also meant suddenly coming out to their families — some of whom rejected them, leaving them to die alone in ever-more-crowded hospital wards.

It affected women and children through shared needles, through blood tranfusions, through unprotected sex with men who were infected, whether they knew it or not.

We were horrified by it, scared of it, despairing when someone we loved called to tell us it was now their turn.

I know most of you won’t even consider reading it, and I get it!

But it is an important and powerful testament to all the issues we’re fighting today….still!

Political infighting.


Vicious battles between those who recognize(d) the science and those who refused.

Demonization of victims.

Demonization of the health-care workers caring for them.

Fear that caring for AIDS patients could kill someone.

Insufficient funding to help victims.

Insufficient government action — sooner — to mitigate the disease’s spread.

15 thoughts on “A must-read book of 20th century history

  1. David Holzman

    I read And the Band Played On somewhere around the time it came out.

    An absolutely terrific book about the pandemic is Michael Lewis’ The Premonition. There are some wonderful characters, notably a female public health official who grew up in a religious community in Oregon were women were expected to get married, and who, when she went off to college instead, was basically disowned by the community. She was very good at seeing what the CDC was missing with regard to the pandemic. (The CDC comes off rather poorly.)

    This book is actually a page turner. I bought it after hearing MIchael Lewis interviewed about it by Christopher Lydon. (I also bought the latest JFK book after hearing that author, Fredrik Logevall, interviewed by Lydon, and I thought it was the best JFK book I’ve read–and I’ve read some good ones.)

    On the subject of books that I really enjoyed, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams is certainly the most important book I’ve read in a number of years. My diet is better than probably 97.99999% of Americans, and I’m almost certainly in the top 10% for exercise. I thought I was getting decent sleep, but it’s obvious that while I wasn’t terrible in that area, I wasn’t great either, and I’ve been working on it since I finished that book a little over a week ago.

    It’s also fascinating, and footnoted, and the author directs the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley, so he knows what he’s talking about. There is also some fascinating dream stuff. For example, Keith Richards sleeps with a piano and a tape recorder nearby. One morning he awakened to see that the tape recorder had been used the previous night. He turned it on, and heard part of a new song–(I can’t get no) Satisfaction–and then 40 minutes of his snoring. And the periodic table came to the man who figured it out in a dream.

  2. I read this book when it first came out. I lost many friends to AIDS in those early years, when an HIV diagnosis was a death sentence and life expectancy could be measured in weeks.

    I agree with you re: Fauci. He was a voice in the wilderness when conservatives were insisting that AIDS didn’t matter because it “only” killed gay men.

    I wish we weren’t lesrning so many of the same lessons over again …

    1. Also, a friend of mine was a newly-minted RN in the early days of the epidemic. She knew I had a ton of gay guy-pals, and she called me one afternoon and said “Please tell your friends to be careful. There’s something terrible that’s primarily affecting the gay community, and we don’t know why. We just know it’s happening, and my guess is that unprotected sex may be a factor.”

    2. Dear Ms Caitlin Kelly and Sharon E. Cathcart,

      I can’t agree with you more. It is very harrowing to see how communities have/had been devastated by the AIDS epidemic.

      Human nature seems to remain largely the same 40 years later. It is often futile to reason with misguided folks, purveyors of ignorance and hatred, plus antivaxxers and antimaskers who endanger other people’s lives. I wonder whether similar dramas will be tragically repeated once the AIDS vaccine is available to the public.

      Needless to say, due to misinformation and disinformation, 2020 had been a difficult year, not to mention having to deal with the pandemic. It was all quite surreal, perhaps in some ways more bizarre than ghosts and the paranormal (not that I believe in such things). One could indeed say that we live in interesting times, but often for the wrong reasons. It is all quite a big mess in danger of getting bigger still. Even a global pandemic still cannot unite folks in the USA and wake them up. Perhaps it will take an even bigger crisis to do so, such as a series of climate change disasters.

      The best and most dedicated amongst the likes of us are also inveterate teachers of everlasting, transcendental wisdom to save humans from themselves, their self-interests and their destructive ways. I often even have to coin new words to do so. The latest examples are my three neologisms “Misquotation Pandemic“, “Disinformation Polemic” and “Viral Falsity“, as discussed in my extensive and analytical post entitled “💬 Misquotation Pandemic and Disinformation Polemic: 🧠 Mind Pollution by Viral Falsity 🦠“, which you can easily locate at the Home page of my website. This post of mine has twelve major sections (plus a detailed annotated gallery) instantly accessible from a navigational menu.

      Wishing you a productive week doing or enjoying whatever that satisfies you the most!

      Happy November to you very soon!

      Yours sincerely,

  3. Deborah Wilburn

    I remember this all too well … lost a co-worker to AIDS. I remember the panels for quilts that were sewn in memory of New York victims, then laid out in one glorious quilt on the Great Lawn in Central Park. It was sad and beautiful at the same time. In my view, the game changer that helped reduce the stigma and qualm fears about how it was transmitted was Princess Di, when she visited an AIDS unit in a London hospital and shook hands with a patient. That picture spoke volumes.

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