New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Culture
17 November 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 4:32pm

The lessons in How to Survive a Plague make it a worthy Baillie Gifford winner

David France’s book about the early days of the fight against AIDS details the power of activism to overcome prejudice.

By Razia Iqbal

We take it for granted today that if you contract the HIV virus, however much it impacts your life, it is not a death sentence. There are anti-retroviral drugs which mean you can live life to the full, even if it is punctuated by a regime of health checks and medication.

It is hard to believe it today, but if you had the virus some three decades or so ago, you were destined for a painful and wretched end. And that is exactly what happened to millions of gay men.

Forty million people died. That is a plague. And David France’s book, How to Survive a Plague, looks at the people who fought to make it possible to live. It is a work of astonishing investigative journalism and a book everyone should read.

As a judge on this year’s Baillie Gifford prize, I found France displayed all the criteria we had in mind assessing some 150-plus books. It is a well written and enviably constructed book, it is immersive in its storytelling, it is important and revelatory.

But it also has to be said, that choosing “the best” book from many excellent works can seem invidious. For me, personally, I learned an enormous amount from all the books and any one on the shortlist, would have been a worthy winner. But in the end, tough choices had to be made.

Select and enter your email address The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

One criteria that helped me was informed by the plethora of books published and the role of prizes generally. The five judges come from diverse backgrounds with different knowledge bases, but we all knew that we wanted the prize to maintain not only a standard of seriousness, but also attempt to answer a simple question: if there was one non-fiction book you would recommend to your circle of friends and colleagues, which might transform their thinking and be an enjoyable and satisfying read, which would you suggest?    

The tag line for the prize is: all the best stories are true. Which as the chair of judges, Peter Bazalgette, pointed out, provides us with a profound antidote to the current prevalence of fake news. All six books on the shortlist, from Christopher de Bellaigue’s history of the Islamic enlightenment to Mark O’Connell’s exploration of transhumanism, are impeccably sourced, superbly written, and have at their hearts, emotional truths.

As someone who thought about the winning book, differently over more than one reading, I would add something else: the best stories also reveal lessons for today and future generations.

France’s huge achievement was that he managed to tell several different layers of the story: the personal tales of people he knew who died; the chronicling of gay activism, refusing to lie down and die (literally) without a fight; and a battle against a giant pharmaceutical industry for whom the search for a cure was hardly as urgently felt as it was for those who needed it most.

The immersive nature of France’s storytelling meant that when you felt you’d had your fill of one part of this story, he would move to another and in the context of the personal pain, there was never a sense of sentimentality. Ultimately, this is a book that not only chronicles an heroic battle against prejudice and a search for real scientific progress, but one which is a powerful reminder that civil disobedience and activism can change the world.

And that is as true today in the climate we live in, when different, and new battles are emerging, as it was when France lived through a period of agony which saw millions of avoidable deaths.

Content from our partners
An innovative approach to regional equity
ADHD in the criminal justice system: a case for change – with Takeda
The power of place in tackling climate change