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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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Kyle Ely
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Dedicated Middle School Teacher Transforms His Classroom Into Hogwarts
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Kyle Ely

It would be hard to dread back-to-school season with Kyle Ely as your teacher. As ABC News reports, the instructor brought a piece of Hogwarts to Evergreen Middle School in Hillsboro, Oregon by plastering his classroom with Harry Potter-themed decor.

The journey into the school's makeshift wizarding world started at his door, which was decorated with red brick wall paper and a "Platform 9 3/4" sign above the entrance. Inside, students found a convincing Hogwarts classroom complete with floating candles, a sorting hat, owl statues, and house crests. He even managed to recreate the starry night sky effect of the school’s Great Hall by covering the ceiling with black garbage bags and splattering them with white paint.

The whole project cost the teacher around $300 to $400 and took him 70 hours to build. As a long-time Harry Potter fan, he said that being able to share his love of the book series with his students made it all pay off it. He wrote in a Facebook post, "Seeing their faces light up made all the time and effort put into this totally worth it."

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Though wildly creative, the Hogwarts-themed classroom at Evergreen Middle School isn't the first of its kind. Back in 2015, a middle school teacher in Oklahoma City outfitted her classroom with a potions station and a stuffed version of Fluffy to make the new school year a little more magical. Here are some more unique classroom themes teachers have used to transport their kids without leaving school.

[h/t ABC News]

Images courtesy of Kyle Ely.

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How the Rise of Paperback Books Turned To Kill a Mockingbird Into a Literary Classic
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Tim Boyle/Getty Images

If you went to middle or high school in the U.S. in the last few decades, chances are you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee's now-classic novel (which was adapted into a now-classic film) about racial injustice in the South. Even if you grew up far-removed from Jim Crow laws, you probably still understand its significance; in 2006, British librarians voted it the one book every adult should read before they die. And yet the novel, while considered an instant success, wasn’t always destined for its immense fame, as we learned from the Vox video series Overrated. In fact, its status in the American literary canon has a lot to do with the format in which it was printed.

To Kill a Mockingbird came out in paperback at a time when literary houses were just starting to invest in the format. After its publication in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was reviewed favorably in The New York Times, but it wasn’t the bestselling novel that year. It was the evolution of paperbacks that helped put it into more hands.

Prior to the 1960s, paperbacks were often kind of trashy, and when literary novels were published in the format, they still featured what Vox calls “sexy covers,” like a softcover edition of The Great Gatsby that featured a shirtless Jay Gatsby on the cover. According to a 1961 article in The New York Times, back in the 1950s, paperbacks were described as “a showcase for the ‘three S’s—sex, sadism, and the smoking gun.’” But then, paperbacks came to schools.

The mass-market paperback for To Kill a Mockingbird came out in 1962. It was cheap, but had stellar credentials, which appealed to teachers. It was a popular, well-reviewed book that earned Lee the Pulitzer Prize. Suddenly, it was in virtually every school and, even half a century later, it still is.

Learn the whole story in the video below from Vox.

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