The worldwide pandemic that is HIV/AIDS has inspired a vast amount of literature. They include self-help manuals, personal accounts, histories, memorials, novels, poetry and plays; and they range from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Most of the good books about AIDS were published in the 1980s and 1990s, which means that many of them are out of print (though all may be found in any good public library or at the Stonewall National Museum and Archives). The following books are part of a vast and still growing library. For the record, the authors who are marked with an asterisk (*) have since died from AIDS complications. Sadly, there were too many of them.
“Facing It: A Novel of AIDS” by Paul Reed* Gay Sunshine Press, 1984.
Facing It was one of the first novels to deal with the epidemic. It follows one gay man’s AIDS-related illness and death, set in the background of medical politics.
“Sex and Germs: The Politics of AIDS” by Cindy Patton South End Press, 1985.
From the beginning, AIDS has been a political epidemic. In Sex and Germs, Patton showed how fear of sex, homosexuality, disease and death shaped the public’s reaction.
“And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic” by Randy Shilts* St. Martin’s Press, 1987.
This is the essential history of the first five years (1980-85) of the epidemic. Though marred by the author’s now-discredited theories (like Patient Zero), Band excels as both literature and journalism. It was the basis for a movie of the same name.
“Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir” by Paul Monette* Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.
This memoir details the AIDS-related death of Monette’s partner, Roger Horwitz. Monette also memorialized Horwitz in Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog (1988).
“Ground Zero” by Andrew Holleran, William Morrow, 1988.
Holleran covered the early years of AIDS in a series of essays, which appeared in Christopher Street magazine. Ground Zero was revised and reissued in 2008 as “Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited: AIDS and Its Aftermath” (Da Capo Press).
“Reports from the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist” by Larry Kramer, St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
Kramer is arguably the greatest, and most controversial, AIDS activist. In his angry essays (and in his play, The Normal Heart), this modern-day Jeremiah attacked the powers that be, including the LGBT community, for not doing enough to fight AIDS. Kramer’s collection of AIDS essays was updated and expanded in 1994.
“Eighty-Sixed: A Novel” by David B. Feinberg*, Viking, 1989.
Feinberg’s first novel follows the life and times of B. J. Rosenthal (a thinly-disguised Feinberg) through the turbulent years of 1980 and 1986. Feinberg also wrote about Mr. Rosenthal in the sequel Spontaneous Combustion (1991).
“Gentle Warriors” by Geoff Mains*, Knights Press, 1989.
In this revenge fantasy, a group of PWA terrorists try to assassinate the president for his failure to do something about AIDS; an idea that might have entered the minds of many of us at a time when gay men were dropping like flies and most people didn’t care.
“Personal Dispatches: Writers Confront AIDS,” edited by John Preston*, St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
This is one of the first and best anthologies of writings about AIDS. Among its contributors are Stephen W. Chapot*, Arnie Kantrowitz and Edmund White.
“People In Trouble” by Sarah Schulman, Dutton, 1990.
If this novel of homelessness and AIDS reminds you of Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent (1996), it might be because Larson borrowed too much from it to create his masterpiece. Schulman certainly thought so.
“Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry” by Essex Hemphill*, Plume, 1992.
AIDS decimated a generation of Black gay authors. Hemphill chronicled the impact of HIV on the African-American community (among other topics) in this great collection of prose and poetry.
“Writing AIDS: Gay Literature, Language, and Analysis,” edited by Timothy F. Murphy and Suzanne Poirier, Columbia University Press, 1993.
This collection of essays also includes a Bibliography, by Murphy and Franklin Brooks, of AIDS Literature 1982-1991.
“Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America” by John-Manuel Andriote, University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Victory Deferred chronicles how the epidemic changed gay life in America: culturally, medically, politically, and socially. In a second, 2011 edition Andriote updates the topic for the 21st century and writes about his own experiences as an HIV-positive man.
“The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco” by Joshua Gamson, Henry Holt & Company, 2005.
There have been many biographies about talented individuals who died too soon from AIDS-related causes. One of the best is this award-winning biography of Sylvester James* (1947-88), the gender-bending star who paved the way for RuPaul, Adam Lambert and many other artists.
“Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS” by Martin Duberman, The New Press, 2014.
Duberman, the dean of LGBT history, approaches AIDS through the lives of two gay artists whose lives were cut short by it: Writer Essex Hemphill* (see above) and singer-composer Michael Callen*.