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How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS

4.43  ·  Rating details ·  2,828 ratings  ·  462 reviews
The definitive history of the successful battle to halt the AIDS epidemic from the creator of, and inspired by, the seminal documentary How to Survive a Plague.

A riveting, powerful telling of the story of the grassroots movement of activists, many of them in a life-or-death struggle, who seized upon scientific research to help develop the drugs that turned HIV from a mos
Hardcover, 640 pages
Published November 29th 2016 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2013)
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Leo Robertson
Nov 22, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I’m on a non-fiction binge, and this was a great one. Quite appropriate and interesting to have read straight after Laurence Rees’ The Holocaust. There are a number of parallels, such as the principle of survivor’s guilt, and how the experience of being so heavily marginalised becomes unforgettable no matter what progress is made after the fact. Reading these two books, it’s just so difficult to take in. Did that really happen? I have an immense and bizarre hunger for how the world was once horr ...more
Jill Mackin
I was there. I worked for the National Association of People with AIDS as their development director from 92 to 97 then again in 2000. Previously I'd worked at The Human Rights Campaign Fund (now HRC). And the Band Played On was an excellent history of AIDS, activism and the federal gov. lack of response during the 80's.

How to Survive a Plague brought it all back to me. The ACT-UP demos, the kiss in at the American Family Association on Vermont Ave, in Wash. DC. Countless deaths in my office, an
(3.5) Spanning from the summer of 1981, when the New York Times first broke the story about a rare cancer observed in homosexuals, to 1996, when protease inhibitors came onto the market and offered HIV sufferers a new lease on life, How to Survive a Plague is a comprehensive history of the AIDS crisis. Especially in its early chapters, it reads like a fascinating medical mystery – though we already know the answers, the book skillfully captures the ignorance and terror that reigned for so many y ...more
Aug 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing
An insider's look at the pivotal moment in American history when AIDS became an epidemic. Written in an easy to read narrative style, this book is equal parts medical, and history that includes lots of sleuthing by average people who desperately want to save their lives, and the lives of their loved ones from AIDS, despite being stonewalled by the government. These ordinary citizens are collectively the Erin Brockovichs of the AIDS movement. If you loved "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" yo ...more
Reading about a devastating plague while living in another might seem counterintuitive and I admit it wasn't exactly easy but I'm glad I did. David France can turn dry scientific talk riveting and I got some help from Rory O'Malley who had me ugly crying on more than one occasion. Sometimes I felt like my heart was in a vise, I got ragey and impotent over bureaucratic incompetence, one that not only hasn't changed but has perhaps gotten worse, and had a couple of bitter laughs noticing many of t ...more
Jill Meyer
Dec 03, 2016 rated it it was amazing
For the first 15 or so years of the AIDS epidemic, the disease was a virtual death sentence. Journalist David France, in his excellent work, "How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS", examines the years 1980 to 1996 to show how "citizens" - in this case, mostly gay activists - put government officials, drug companies, and scientists on the line to come up with drugs and other therapies to control the disease.

David France focuses his book on the work being
An insider's comprehensive and eye opening account of the citizens who changed and saved lives throughout the AIDS plague. How to Survive a Plague is informative, emotional, and unique. Not only was I in awe of the people who repeatedly worked to change the course of history, but the author's clear dedication was inspiring. Everyone should read this book, now more than ever.

If ever protest feels like a hopeless task, this book is proof that it isn't. Ignored by the majority - confronted with ha
Feb 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Where Randy Shilts drew the intricate outline of the history of the AIDS crisis in his 1987 classic, AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, David France has sculpted a three-dimensional image of the herculean task of convincing the NIH and the pharmaceutical companies to research, test, and manufacture drugs that would effectively corral HIV into a disease that could be managed and survived.

Unlike Shilts, who maintained a strictly detached, if dramatic, journalistic tone as he related the story like a mystery
Tim Pinckney
Mar 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is an extraordinary book, beautifully written. It will knock the wind out of you at times (I was finishing it over lunch yesterday and started crying in Chipotle...). For those of us that experienced much of this story first hand, it is a detailed, smart and completely readable account of a harrowing time in our recent history. The amazing array of characters will infuriate you, make you laugh and break your heart.
Read this book to see how every day citizens of this country brought about l
Jun 09, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
France shows how terrifying and isolating an experience it must have been to grow up gay in America during the 70s and 80s. Using his own experience he illustrates the terror and stigma surrounding homosexuality and this was before the appearance of AIDS. We have to remember that up to the 70s homosexuality was classified in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” as a sociopathic personality disturbance and ECT was being administered to try and cure it.

The “New York Times”
I've just finished this and I'm sat here feeling a lot of things; I'm not sure how to describe this book but I will try anyway. it's not a review as much as my immediate thoughts and reactions.

Mostly I feel a bone-deep exhaustion at this fucking repetitive story: people are dead and dying because they are not considered people by other people. It's as frustratingly simple as that and it's the same thing every single time.

Then I feel anger. Anger not only that it took 11 godforsaken years for s
In countless ways, survival, unexpected as it was, proved as hard to adjust to as the plague itself.
Dana Sweeney
Jan 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An enthralling history that does justice to one of the most revolutionary, unlikely, under-appreciated movements in recent American life. The ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) movement changed public health and LGBTQ life forever; when governments and pharmaceutical companies ignored the outbreak of the AIDS crisis (“who cares about a disease that only kills gay people?”), queer people got organized and worked to save themselves.

David France is a tender, authoritative guide through the cr
Mar 04, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-read-2017
AIDS was supposed to be the next pandemic, A disease that would take out 1 in 4 of the population. So far this virus has claimed around 40 million victims and it is thought that there are around 37 million still carrying the HIV or full blown AIDS virus at present. These are huge numbers. When it surfaced in the early 1980’s in America no one knew anything about it. It was passed from individual to individual through sexual contact and once it had entered into the gay community it spread rapidly ...more
Christine (Queen of Books)
tl;dr - Read this one.

Billed as "the inside story of how citizens and science tamed AIDS," How to Survive a Plague is an incredibly wide-ranging book. The author (David France) is an investigative journalist, which means the book provides a well-written and well-researched account. The author also is a gay man who moved to NYC in 1981.

To be clear, this book is nonfiction - in 640 pages, maybe 30 read like a memoir. But still - the author was there. He didn't just consult the archives and conduct
Dec 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing
My review for the Chicago Tribune:

Everybody knows that the size of a book does not guarantee its quality, yet there's still something thrilling about a book of a certain heft; a door-stopper-size tome speaks silently to a certain degree of ambition, completeness and necessity.

David France's riveting and comprehensive "How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS" purports, accurately, to be the definitive account of the
Mark Hiser
“Silence = Death”

As I write this, it is World AIDS Day in 2017. Last evening, the President of the United States issued a proclamation in commemoration of those who have died, and are living with, one of the worst plagues of modern history. He, however, failed to mention the LGBTQ community that was ravaged by HIV/AIDS.

In 1924, Henry Gerber of Chicago founded the Society for Human Rights, the first--but short lived--gay rights organization in the US. Though other events later occurred to bring
Michael H.
Jan 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is an astonishing book. Including the glossary and notes, it tops 600 pages. I am not a fast reader, and I read it in a week. I should say at the outset that I had a personal interest in the material, having lost a partner to AIDS in Boston in 1984 and many friends in the subsequent years. This book has frequently been compared to Randy Shilts' "And the Band Played On" but is more tightly focussed on the formation of ACT UP and its impact on the ultimate development of life-saving drugs. De ...more
Sarah Rosenberger
I was born in 1981, the same year an article about a new "gay cancer" was published, signaling the start of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. By the time I was old enough to really understand what AIDS was, the YM magazines I read were already full of articles about pretty blonde girls living with the disease, detailed info about condom use, and the oft-repeated reminder that, "anyone can get AIDS." It wasn't until later that I realized that AIDS originated in the gay community, and it wasn't until MUCH la ...more
Eric Anderson
Dec 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Growing up in the 80s I really had no awareness of the spread of Aids in America. One of my first memories of hearing about Aids was in science class at school where my teacher Mr Marble told everyone that it’s the gays who were responsible for spreading this disease. It was only during my teenage years in the 90s when I came out and befriended other gay people that I became more knowledgeable about the virus. It’s a sad fact that some of the people I was closest to in my younger years are now H ...more
Mrs. Danvers
It seems so long ago now but sometimes it seems like yesterday. I'm grateful for this inside perspective on the fight to get "drugs into bodies." I didn't know much of the information contained in this book, I really only knew the horror of the plague. ...more
Janet Mason
This piece of commentary was previously aired on This Way Out, the LGBTQ news and culture syndicate headquartered in Los Angeles and published in The Huffington Post.

Every now and then comes that rare book that brings your life rushing back to you. How To Survive A Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France (Knopf 2016) is one such book.

The book chronicles the AIDS epidemic from the early 1980s – when the mysterious “gay cancer” started appearing — to 1995 wh
Edward Rathke
May 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: us-history
This history of the AIDS epidemic, which is also parts memoir and biography, is fascinating for a number of reasons. One of them is that none of these people who drove AIDS research forward are generally remembered. I, at least, was not familiar with any of them, excepting Dr Fauci.

It's interesting to read this during a pandemic where Dr Fauci also stands at the head of leadership. During the current crisis, he's seen as a hero trying to save the lives of millions, but during the AIDS epidemic,
George Fenwick
Aug 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Sep 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I'm not crying, you're crying. This book is beautiful, sad, and somehow still incredibly relevant decades after the peak of the AIDS epidemic. I loved how it celebrated the accomplishments of leaders in the gay community while also admitting that they were often wrong and frustratingly human. Kramer, for example, was both an amazing leader and an incredibly petty man who took his frustrations out on the people around him. Very well-written, researched, and with a powerful personal touch, this bo ...more
Kaleb Rogers
Jun 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: bb-500
As revealing of our nation’s history of LGBTQ discrimination as its persevering shortcomings in the realm of healthcare, How to Survive a Plague brings the details of an under-discussed history to life.
Jan 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Queer Interest, Medical Interest
I heard an interview that David France did on the Nov. 25 2016 Inside the New York Times Book Review Podcast. It was an interesting interview, and ultimately one that motivated me to pick up the book. France interweaves his personal narrative with the political and medical transgressions of the AIDS epidemic. I found the buyers clubs and the underground drug market particularly fascinating even when the drugs DIDN'T work, there was no evidence of the drugs working, people knew they didn't work, ...more
The AIDS epidemic, told from the pov of someone who was personally connected to many of the people and events recounted. I found the first half incredibly difficult to get through. Reading about people starting to notice health problems but not know what was going on was like watching a horror movie where you can see the serial killer stalking right behind their next victim, but you have no way of warning them. The second half was so inspiring. Even though France is open and honest about the tol ...more
Nov 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is probably one of the most important books I've read in my life. I came out as a gay man, to myself and to the world, in February 1987, at 19 years old, in São Paulo, less than a week I had finally started living on my own away from my family and hometown. That period also marks one the lowest points in not only the fight against AIDS but also of rabid homophobia in the West. Homosexuals were viewed then as not only perverted, but also as plagued and lethally contagious. The disease had by ...more
Feb 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Strongly recommended: If you did not live through the plague years, be sure to read this. Even if you did live through them there's a lot to learn from this book.

I knew I wanted to read this, but also feared it would be too painful to go over this history. I had seen the film (of course there have been "novelizations" of films in the past, but wonder if this is the first time a movie paved the way for a non-fiction book?). I knew the author to be a good writer, as well as a witness to the event
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