The 25 Most Influential Books of the Past 25 Years: And the Band Played On

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The latest issue of mental_floss just hit newsstands. Rosemary Ahern's cover story chronicles 'The 25 Most Influential Books of the Past 25 Years.' This week, we'll be revealing five of those influential books here on the blog. And if this puts you in a subscribing mood, here are the details.

And the Band Played On

by Randy Shilts (1987)

The Book That Forced Us to Acknowledge AIDS

Randy Shilts is almost single-handedly responsible for getting the world to pay attention to AIDS. The first openly gay reporter for a major American newspaper, Shilts wrote And the Band Played On to trace the history of AIDS and the failure of both the medical community and society at large to respond to the crisis. As Shilts makes clear in his work, the timing of the epidemic could not have been worse. In the conservative environment of the 1980s, AIDS was dismissed as the "gay plague." The Reagan administration publicly opposed policies "promoting or encouraging, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities," and they blocked the efforts of Congress and public health officials to educate the American people about the disease. In his book, Shilts got many of these frustrated lawmakers and scientists to speak on record for the first time.

And the Band Played On changed people's perception of AIDS and its sufferers.

In assessing the work's importance, historian Garry Wills wrote, "This book will be to gay liberation what Betty Friedan was to early feminism and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was to environmentalism."

Although there is no question that And the Band Played On helped fuel advocacy, Shilts did not want to be perceived as an advocate for gay rights. He considered himself an objective reporter at all times. In the early 1980s, for instance, he wrote a series of stories about the danger of gay bathhouses for The San Francisco Chronicle, which prompted the city to shut them down. The incident caused an uproar in the gay community, and gay men spat on Shilts as he walked through town.

But Shilts understood the power of objective reporting, and he intended And the Band Played On to have the strongest impact possible.

Although he was tested for AIDS while writing his book, he refused to hear the results because he didn't want them to influence his reporting.

Indeed, the public perceived the book as an objective work of investigative journalism, which made it more effective. In March of 1987, after the book was complete, Shilts discovered he was HIV-positive. Even at his sickest, he retained the ability to give outsiders a fresh perspective on the illness. A few months before he died in 1994, he told a reporter for The New York Times, "HIV is certainly character-building. It's made me see all of the shallow things we cling to, like ego and vanity. Of course, I'd rather have a few more T-cells and a little less character."

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February 25, 2009 - 3:55am
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