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I had been wanting to read this book for a long time and when I finally got around to it, it was a difficult read – not only because my copy was over 600 pages of densely packed font, but also because there is simply so much information and so many names coming at the reader. In tracing the AIDS epidemic throughout the 1980s, there are so many facets of the story, and it often switches between locations so concentration is key. For that reason I found I could only read 10 or so pages at a time before I needed to put the book down for a rest.

But for all that it almost felt like homework, it was an illuminating read, and I have kept my copy to read again in future. Randy Shilts was an American journalist and author, who obviously meticulously researched his subject and in the end delivered not just a timeline of an epidemic that ravaged the gay community, but a searing indictment on the Reagan administration who ignored it all for years despite thousands of people dying and despite being told frequently that this disease was tearing through the country. This book horrified me and made me furious at the lack of regard for the AIDS victims.

Shilts describes how in the early 1980s several young gay men started presenting with an unusual skin cancer, which led to much speculation about its cause. While doctors and scientists could see fairly quickly that there was a huge problem in the offing, and worked tirelessly to try to find the cause, they were up against not just an indifferent federal government, but politics at all levels, the gay community themselves, many of whom resented being advised to lessen their sexual activities, and the abhorrent negligence of such places as many blood banks in America, who refused to start testing their blood even after it was proven that AIDS could be caught through infected transfused blood. The national and local press were also largely uninterested in a disease that only affected gay men.

Amongst the scientific challenges and breakthroughs – including one very interesting narrative about the rivalry between American and French scientists – and the grass roots political attempts to get the Reagan administration interested in this disease, there are tales of key people in the epidemic, many of whom succumbed to AIDS themselves. These for me were some of the most interesting parts, as they focussed on the human aspect of living with a disease, or seeing friend after friend pass away. It portrayed the desperation and hopelessness that people felt, and the anger at their government for ignoring them. I often found myself googling certain people and events to find out more about them – which was another reason it took me such a long time to read this book.

So not an easy read, but an extremely worthwhile one and definitely worth the investment of time and concentration.

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