“The bitter truth was that AIDS did not just happen to America—it was allowed to happen by an array of institutions, all of which failed to perform their appropriate tasks to safeguard the public health.” – Prologue, And the Band Played On

This is the most important book I have ever read. It’s the reason I suffer through organic chem. It’s the reason I’m a biology major. It’s the reason I even think about science at all. Quite honestly, it’s difficult to say something too dramatic or to say too much of an overstatement on how this book changed me as a person.

And the Band Played On is journalist Randy Shilts’ account of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in America. Published in 1987, he chronicles where the pandemic started (from what they knew at the time, we’ve done a lot of research since then), where it spread, what people did (or didn’t do) to stop it and sound the alarm, and the many, many, many challenges faced along the way. You’ll read about Dr. Donald Francis and the team of CDC scientists trying to figure out just what was happening. You’ll read about Dr. Anthony Fauci as he started his career in pandemic fighting (and for those of you thirsting after him—you do you, I guess—you might not like one part that you read, but you will be more informed). You’ll read about the French team of scientists who discovered what we now call HIV. And you’ll read about the community organizers who saw their friends and loved ones dying, and who fought tooth and nail to get those in power to listen, to do something.

This book is not what I would call fun to read. I wouldn’t blame anyone for feeling at least a little despair. I certainly did when I finished this book back in high school, and I have felt the same from time to time these past few weeks. When I read the last words, I felt profoundly empty. But after spending time thinking about And the Band Played On and discussing it with my then-mentor, I had another feeling: resolve. It does not have to be like this. So, despite having completely lost my faith in my ability to do science the year before, I applied to college as a prospective biology major. I was thrilled when I saw that Dr. Linda Laubenstein, one of the early and important doctors treating HIV/AIDS (you’ll read about her too!), had gone to Barnard. And on the days that I feel so overwhelmed and all I want to do is change my major or drop out entirely, this book is a reminder to myself why I’m even trying in the first place.

Advances in research and public health measures since this book’s publication have turned an HIV diagnosis from a death sentence to a manageable chronic condition. But there is still so, so much more work to be done. (Everything didn’t magically fall into place after the events this book chronicles— for more, read How to Survive a Plague and 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa.) And I would not be thinking about any of it had this book not come into my life at the right time.

It does feel a little gauche to be recommending a book about one global health catastrophe when another is happening right now. While I don’t think we’re seeing a total repetition of history, the similarities are quite disturbing. As we did in the early 1980s, we are learning what happens when those in power ignore the truth for a more convenient lie. When this period in history is over, we will be faced with many important crossroads. Will the band play on, business as usual, until the next pandemic strikes? Will we continue to leave the most vulnerable among us in the cold when it does?

We are doomed to repeat the history we don’t learn from, so learn from this. Learn from what happened then, and learn from what’s happening right now. I, for one, know we can choose a better path. So I will do my part to make it happen, with this book and the lessons learned clutched tightly to my chest.

Image via Bwog Staff