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.

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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.

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.