It was a very odd feeling to be reading a book called “How to Survive a Plague” as the US began closing down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Covering the time from 1981, when a cluster of gay men in New York city were diagnosed with a rare cancer, to 1996, when effective drug treatments were eventually developed, How to Survive a Plague is a comprehensive history of the AIDS crisis, focusing on the dual roles of scientists and activists in finding a cure. As someone who lived through this time (albeit as a child), it was interesting to get a lot more backstory on events that I vaguely remembered (the death of Rock Hudson, Ryan White appearing on the cover of People magazine) as well as learning more about the competing efforts to discover the cause of this disease and find effective treatments.
Throughout the book, journalist David France draws on his own memories, as well as stories and documents from others who were present at the time. Some of those featured in the book are still alive (either through not contracting the virus or surviving long enough for effective treatments to be available), but many more die over the course of the book. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who we’ve all seen a lot of lately in his role as leader of the US government’s COVID response team, features prominently in How to Survive a Plague as well. Fauci played a major role in the official response to the AIDS crisis as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
It’s a common trope to claim that we study history to avoid repeating its mistakes. However, I’ve always found it somewhat comforting to realize that others have been where we are before. This time feels unprecedented, and in many ways it is, but for some members of the gay community of New York I imagine it feels strangely familiar as well. This book was a tough but ultimately inspiring read, recommended for anyone interested in the history of science or life in the US (particularly New York City) in the 1980s. It also makes a great companion to Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, which also explores the lasting impact of the AIDS crisis on a group of gay men and those who love them.