This book has just about everything I like in a non-fiction. It’s got science, medicine, high stakes, historical significance, and modern relevance. Trying to figure out why it wasn’t more compelling to me, I had to look no further than the 6th word in the title: Politics.
This novel is about AIDS, but it’s much more about people than about science. Shilts has a huge cast of characters, from French researchers to gay activists to scientists with the NIH and CDC. He tracks the disease from Fire Island nightclub-hoppers in New York to sexy French-Canadian flight attendants in San Francisco. The aphorism among those who try to gain money for non profits is that no one cares about a thousand starving people in Africa, but they will care about one starving child. Along those lines, people don’t care about 20,000 dead, but they might care about one dying person.
I might have cared more if this book were about one dying person instead of dozens. The main problem I had with this book is that there were too many names to keep track of. That might sound funny from a person who loved George R.R.Martin’s dense tomes, but in high fantasy, everyone fights for their lives, and some win and some die. In this novel, some people died, and others bickered about funding.
The problem, I think, is that this book lacked a plot. That may seem an unfair accusation to level at a non-fiction book, but every book needs a plot. In the Ghost Map, a book about cholera, the scope was “how is this disease caused” and the span of time covered its outbreak. I keep wondering, what was this book about? Was it about the epidemic? If so, it ended too soon (in span of time). It should have concluded with the current numbers of victims in Africa, and how education and behavior change altered the patterns of contagion in America. Was it about how gay culture in America was altered by the epidemic? If so, it should have maybe touched on how gay rights has changed as a result of the epidemic. Was it about the disease itself? If so, it didn’t really delve too deeply into how HIV causes AIDS. I looked up the publishing date and discovered that this was written in 1987 (and Shilts died of AIDS in 1994) so maybe none of these were possible, but I couldn’t help feeling that he was just dumping all his research on us without stepping back and making sure that all these facts formed a bigger picture.
Shilts focused almost primarily upon the political aspects. Funding funding funding. Who got funding, who didn’t? Who got credit for discovering this and that, who didn’t? Who didn’t want to be tainted by association with the “gay” disease? Here’s a spoiler for those who don’t know: the US government twiddled its thumbs and looked the other way while thousands and thousands of Americans died, because those Americans had different sexual tastes. Here’s another spoiler: thousands of gays became infected because they were not willing to hear straight people tell them to stop having sex. The AIDS epidemic was a tragedy beyond Shakespearian propoprtions.
But Shilts left some crucial things out. He mentioned the fight over whether or not to close the bathhouses, but no one ever mentioned when the researchers discovered that AIDS can be prevented by condoms. That seems a huge oversight. Maybe it happened after the book was published. He chronicled the contagion and the death from AIDS of many gay men, which should have been compelling, but their tales got lost amid the slough of other names thrown at me. If he had picked one person, and chronicled one story, it would have been harder-hitting than a dozen. Perverse, but true.
The other problem I had with this is that it felt too long. Only an hour into the second half of the audiobook, I started internally debating whether or not I was willing to finish it. It felt 30-40% longer than it should have been. That’s probably because of the ratios of how he dealt with the different aspects. I like science, history, and tense mysteries (discovery of a disease can be a very tense mystery) Politics are okay, but only if they talk about people I’m familiar with, like the Lannisters or the Starks. I wanted to read a book that was 50% science 30% history 20% human drama, and a smidge politics. What I got was a book that was 70% politics (about people I’ve never heard of, mostly) 10% human drama, 20% history, and only trace of science. I bought a book that seemed like it would be a tense drama about one of the most important epidemics in the 20th century, and it ended up making me yawn and wonder if I should finish listening to it.
I recommend this for people who like politics more than science, and anyone who wants a well-rounded understanding of American history and isn’t easily bored.