It’s A Sin: 11 essential books about the 1980s AIDS epidemic you need to read
If you’ve been left wanting to know more about the origins of the AIDS crisis after watching powerful new drama It’s A Sin, we’d recommend reading the following AIDS books on this list.
The show by Russell T Davies airs weekly on Fridays on Channel 4 in the UK, with the entire series readily available on 4 On Demand while US viewers will get a chance to watch the show on HBO Max from 18 February.
It stars Olly Alexander and follows a group of friends who move into a house together, the ‘pink palace’ and are excited to be young and free in the capital. But their world is turned upside down when a mysterious illness that is said to spread among gay men strikes across the globe.
Since its release in the UK it’s garnered an emotional reaction from viewers including those who came of age during the AIDS epidemic and are sharing their own painful memories of that time on social media.
Meanwhile younger viewers have expressed their gratitude to those from that period as well as Davies and the cast for educating them on the AIDS epidemic which is rarely, if ever, taught in schools.
If after watching the series you want to continue your education on the AIDS epidemic, then one way to do it is through the number of important AIDS books out there including direct, personal accounts of those who lived through and those we sadly lost during the period.
We’ve put together a list of memoirs, novels and plays that focus on the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and beyond that we think are essential reads. If you know of any AIDS books we don’t mention that you think should be on this list, feel free to get in touch.
1. Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir
Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir by Paul Monette is the first of the AIDS books on our list. It’s a personal account of the early days of the AIDS crisis as well as a love story in the face of death. Monette met Roger Horwitz, the man who he would share more than a decade of his life with but in 1986 Roger died of complications from AIDS. This book traces their love story from start to tragic finish at a time when the medical community was just beginning to understand this disease. While this was happening Monette and others like him were coming to terms with unfathomable loss.
To purchase this powerful personal account of living through the AIDS crisis go to Amazon here.
2. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic
The second of our AIDS books is And the Band Played On, a collection of investigative reporting on the spread of AIDS throughout America in the 1980s. It’s by Randy Shilts who was employed by the San Francisco Chronicle to cover gay issues in 1981, the same year AIDS came to international attention. He exposes how AIDS was ignored and denied as a threat by many national institutions by looking at how the epidemic was allowed to spread so far before it was taken seriously, while weaving together personal stories of those in the gay community and the medical and political establishments.
It’s also been adapted into a television film of the same name. The film premiered in 1993, the same year as Philadelphia and Angels in America, noting how necessary these works of art were to draw attention to the AIDS epidemic. It’s available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.
To purchase the book go to Amazon here.
3. Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival
This memoir by Sean Strub follows his journey to Washington, D.C. in 1976. He arrives with a secret: his attraction to men, but soon discovers a parallel world where powerful men live double lives shrouded in shame. When the AIDS epidemic hits Strub was living in New York and turned to activisim to combat discrimination and demand research including . In this memoir he takes readers through his own diagnosis and inside ACT UP, the activist organisation that transformed a stigmatised cause into one of the defining political movements of our time including his role in the AIDS demonstrations at St. Patrick’s Cathedral as well as at the home of US Senator Jesse Helms.
To purchase Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival go to Amazon here.
4. My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story
My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story is written by Abraham Verghese and follows his story of working as a young Indian doctor specialising in infectious diseases in the American heartland of Johnson City, Tennessee. Nestled in the Smoky Mountains of the state it was a place that always seemed exempt from the anxieties of modern American life, but when the local hospital treated its first AIDS patient, a crisis that had once seemed an ‘urban problem’ had arrived in town to stay.
Doctor Verghese became the local AIDS expert and was soon besieged by a shocking number of male and female patients who stories came to occupy his mind and take over his life. His work at the time and this book offer a singular perspective to the conservative community of Johnson City, as a doctor unique in his abilities and an outsider who could talk to people suspicious of local practitioners.
To purchase the book go to Amazon here.
5. Tales of the City
Tales of the City is a series of nine novels by Armistead Maupin released between 1978 and 2014, first appearing as installments in the San Francisco Chronicle.
It centres eccentric, marijuana-growing Anna Madrigal who’s the landlady of 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco which houses an eclectic group of tenants. One of them, Michael Tolliver, known to his friends as ‘Mouse’, is a HIV-positive gay man who watches his friends die of AIDS around him, causing him to struggle with what his own future might hold.
It’s since been adapted into a television mini series which is available to stream on All 4 in the UK. Two more installments were released in 1998 and 2001 featuring the same core cast.
Meanwhile a new adaption and sequel to the original series is available on Netflix which sees Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis reprise their roles alongside new cast members including Elliot Page, Jen Richards, Daniela Vega and Bob the Drag Queen. It weaves a new story set mostly in the present day with elements from Maupin’s later novels in the Tales series.
To purchase the first book in the Tales of the City series go to Amazon here.
6. Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned
Pedro and Me is an autobiographical novel by Judd Winick that looks at his friendship with Pedro Zamora a HIV-positive AIDS activist. The pair met while taking part on the MTV reality television series The Real World: San Francisco but not long after the show had aired Pedro became ill from AIDS complications. He was supposed to begin a lecture tour so Judd agreed to step in and speak on his behalf until he was well enough to do it himself. In August 1994 Pedro checked into hospital and never recovered, passing away in November at just 22-years-old. Following his death, Judd continued to lecture about Pedro and to educate audience about AIDS and went on to honour his friend further with this moving portrait of friendship which was published in 2000.
To purchase Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned go to Amazon here.
7. Tell the Wolves I’m Home
Tell the Wolves I’m Home centres on 14-year-old June who is shy at school and distant from her older sister. She forms a close bond with her uncle Finn who becomes her confidant and best friend, but he sadly dies of AIDS. However to June it’s a mysterious illness that her mother can barely bring herself to discuss. After the funeral she forms a friendship with Toby, her late uncle’s boyfriend and realises she is not the only one who misses Finn as he has left behind a whole community who loves him.
To purchase the book which explores love, loss and compassion go to Amazon here.
8. The Great Believers
The Great Believers follows two stories, the first in 1985 with Yale Tishman, a successful development director for an art gallery in Chicago. As his career is flourishing the carnage of the AIDS epidemic grows around him. His friends are dying one by one and after his friend Nico’s funeral he finds out his partner is infected and that he might have the virus himself and the only person he has left is Fiona, Nico’s little sister.
The second story takes place 30 years later as Fiona is in Paris tracking down her estranged daughter who disappeared into a cult. She stays with an old friend who documented the Chicago epidemic and grapples with the ways the AIDS crisis affected her life and her relationship with her daughter. Both Yale and Fiona’s stories unfold as they both struggle to find goodness in the face of disaster.
To get the book go to Amazon here.
9. Angels in America
Angels in America might be a tougher read as it’s a play rather than a novel but the work by Tony Kushner is considered as an important piece of gay history as well as a groundbreaking play.
It’s set in two parts entitled Millennium Approaches and Perestroika and takes place in mid-1980s America in the midst of the AIDS crisis and a conservative Reagan administration. It follows New Yorkers who grapple with life and death, love and sex, heaven and hell in an often metaphorical and symbolic examination of AIDS and homosexuality at the time. It features major and minor characters who are supernatural beings (angels) or deceased persons (ghosts) and primarily focuses on a gay couple in Manhattan, with other storylines intersecting with theirs.
It was also adapted into an award-winning series which is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video and NowTV in the UK or HBO Max in the US. The miniseries features six episodes and stars Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson.
To purchase the book go to Amazon here.
10. The Normal Heart
Another play to add to your list of AIDS books is Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. It follows Ned Weeks, a gay journalist in New York who is trying to break through a conspiracy of silence, indifference and hostility from public officials and the gay community to gain recognition for a disease that threatens to change everything. The story unfolds like a real-life political thriller as the tight-knit group of friends and activists, lead by Ned, refuse to let doctors, politicians and the press silence the epidemic that is affecting so many people.
The play had a successful Off-Broadway run in 1985 and was revived in 2004 as well as in Los Angeles and London but it didn’t have its Broadway debut until 2011, when it won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.
It has also been adapted into a feature length film by Ryan Murphy. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer and Taylor Kitsch it was released in 2014 on HBO and can be watched on Amazon Prime Video.
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To purchase The Normal Heart go to Amazon here.
11. Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father
The last of the AIDS books on our list is a memoir by Alysia Abbott explores a father/daughter relationship before, during and after the AIDS epidemic. Following his wife’s death in 1973 Steve Abbott came out of the closet and moved to San Francisco with his three-year-old daughter. The city was bustling with gay men in search of liberation, but not many of them had the responsibility of raising a child. Steve threw himself into the city’s vibrant poetry scene and shared it all with his daughter Alysia. As the pair began to find happiness and Steve’s work started to get recognised the AIDS crisis hit and their roles of caregiver and receiver reverses. In this memoir Alysia revisits her father’s journals and writing in a moving account of a daughter’s love and her father’s legacy.
To purchase Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father go to Amazon here.
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