The best books about how to have sex (and other critical things) in an epidemic

Why am I passionate about this?

Amidst COVID-19, HIV/AIDS is a touchpoint for journalists, scholars, writers, and a public who seek a usable past in understanding the present and making an uncertain future less so. The challenge of how to love, live, and survive amidst pandemics isn't new, I play here on the title of one of the first safer sex books, How to Have Sex in an Epidemic. As someone who studies how activists document their work and how they bring those materials to life today, I'm both fascinated and troubled by pandemic comparisons. These books offer crucial stories and productive tools to think with as we navigate questions of how to survive, and maybe even thrive amidst intersecting pandemics. 


I wrote...

Viral Cultures: Activist Archiving in the Age of AIDS

By Marika Cifor,

Book cover of Viral Cultures: Activist Archiving in the Age of AIDS

What is my book about?

Serving as a vital supplement to the existing scholarship on AIDS activism of the 1980s and 1990s, ViralCultures is the first book to critically examine the archives that have helped preserve and create the legacy of those radical activities. Marika Cifor charts the efforts activists, archivists, and curators have made to document the work of AIDS activism in the United States and the infrastructure developed to maintain it, safeguarding the material for future generations to remember these social movements and revitalize the epidemic’s past to remake the present and future of AIDS. 

This work of archival ethnography details how contemporary activists, artists, and curators use these records to build on the cultural legacy of AIDS activism to challenge the conditions of injustice that continue to undergird current AIDS crises. 
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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Virus Touch: Theorizing Epidemic Media

Marika Cifor Why did I love this book?

One of the best academic books written at convergence of the HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 pandemics is The Virus Touch.

Here, Bishnupriya Ghosh showcases how “epidemic media” inform how epidemics are understood and experienced—making this text so relevant right now. She looks at how media—images, numbers, and digital models—whether generated by scientists, artists, or activists enable us to see and understand viruses and bear witness to their effects in new ways.

What is unique about Ghosh’s scholarship is how looks to the environment to study health which illustrates the complex and tangled relationships between epidemics, humans, animals, and media. Ghosh’s rich examples, ranging from modelling viruses to reading test results to tracking infection rates and mortality numbers, ensure that Virus Touch speaks to diverse readers.

By Bishnupriya Ghosh,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Virus Touch as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Virus Touch Bishnupriya Ghosh argues that media are central to understanding emergent relations between viruses, humans, and nonhuman life. Writing in the shadow of the HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 global pandemics, Ghosh theorizes "epidemic media" to show how epidemics are mediated in images, numbers, and movements through the processes of reading test results and tracking infection and mortality rates. Scientific, artistic, and activist epidemic media that make multispecies relations sensible and manageable eschew anthropocentric survival strategies and instead recast global public health crises as biological, social, and ecological catastrophes, pushing us toward a multispecies politics of health. Ghosh trains…


Book cover of The Great Believers

Marika Cifor Why did I love this book?

My favorite AIDS novel is Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers.

In this exquisitely written book, Makkai not only chronicles the 1980s AIDS epidemic in Chicago, she illustrates how the epidemic continues now. This is vital when it comes to AIDS, where there is a temptation to place suffering and death in the past or at least elsewhere.

Makkai’s story begins in 1985 with Yale Tishman, a gallerist on the brink of making it, while simultaneously living in a world where AIDS is everywhere, his friends are dying and the virus becomes increasingly intimate.

In an intersecting plot, Makkai moves to Fiona, who finds herself in the twenty-first century, finally able to grapple with the devastation of AIDS and how it has affected her life and relationships. 

By Rebecca Makkai,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Great Believers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST
A NEW YORK TIMES TOP 10 BOOK OF 2018
LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE WINNER
ALA CARNEGIE MEDAL WINNER
THE STONEWALL BOOK AWARD WINNER

Soon to Be a Major Television Event, optioned by Amy Poehler

"A page turner . . . An absorbing and emotionally riveting story about what it's like to live during times of crisis." -The New York Times Book Review

A dazzling novel of friendship and redemption in the face of tragedy and loss set in 1980s Chicago and contemporary Paris

In 1985, Yale Tishman, the development director for an…


Book cover of Forget Burial: HIV Kinship, Disability, and Queer/Trans Narratives of Care

Marika Cifor Why did I love this book?

Marty Fink’s book is one of the best examples of recent and groundbreaking scholarship on HIV/AIDS.

Fink examines HIV/AIDS histories through critical disability studies discourse to show in a compelling and very readable way how queer and trans people in the 1980s and early 1990s came together to take care of each other when faced with stark and far-reaching state violence.

This book has deep contemporary relevance showing how multifaceted HIV care-giving narratives continue to inform how individuals and our wider society makes sense of gender, disability, and kinship.

Such work is essential in this political moment where we are seeing ever-more challenges to bodily self-determination, for women, queer and, especially for trans people. 

By Marty Fink,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Forget Burial as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Finalist for the LGBTQ Nonfiction Award from Lambda Literary

Queers and trans people in the 1980s and early ‘90s were dying of AIDS and the government failed to care. Lovers, strangers, artists, and community activists came together take care of each other in the face of state violence. In revisiting these histories alongside ongoing queer and trans movements, this book uncovers how early HIV care-giving narratives actually shape how we continue to understand our genders and our disabilities. The queer and trans care-giving kinships that formed in response to HIV continue to inspire how we have sex and build chosen…


Book cover of We Are Having This Conversation Now: The Times of AIDS Cultural Production

Marika Cifor Why did I love this book?

In We Are Having This Conversation Now, Alexandra Juhasz and Theodore Kerr blow up the conventions of academic work on epidemics.

In a series of thirteen short dialogues they reflect as activists, media-makers, and scholars on the history, present, and future of AIDS. The reflections on AIDS-related culture and conversation they share, will spark for readers critical questions about how personal experiences, community, cultural production, and interpersonal relations come together.

Doing this kind of reflective work is particularly important now, as we need to begin to understand not only HIV/AIDS, but how it impacts the experience of living amidst other viral pandemics including COVID-19. 

By Alexandra Juhasz, Theodore Kerr,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked We Are Having This Conversation Now as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

We Are Having This Conversation Now offers a history, present, and future of AIDS through thirteen short conversations between Alexandra Juhasz and Theodore Kerr, scholars deeply embedded in HIV responses. They establish multiple timelines of the epidemic, offering six foundational periodizations of AIDS culture, tracing how attention to the crisis has waxed and waned from the 1980s to the present. They begin the book with a 1990 educational video produced by a Black health collective, using it to consider organizing intersectionally, theories of videotape, empowerment movements, and memorialization. This video is one of many powerful yet overlooked objects that the…


Book cover of Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead, and the Small Things in Between

Marika Cifor Why did I love this book?

It takes a great writer to make the complex structure and mechanics of viruses legible, and moreover, deeply compelling.

Osmundson draws together his personal experiences, expertise in microbiology, and a queer politics and studies in eleven essays that reflect critically on how viruses like HIV and COVID-19 (and their intersections) have redefined each of our daily lives.

The book offers powerful insights into illness politics, sex and pleasure amidst pandemics, and our collective responsibility for one another through a very personal narrative in ways that promise crucial insights. We need such personal and critical work as we continue to figure out new ways to live alongside viruses and viral pandemics.

By Joseph Osmundson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Virology as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Invisible in the food we eat, the people we kiss, and inside our own bodies, viruses flourish-with the power to shape not only our health, but our social, political, and economic systems. Drawing on his expertise in microbiology, Joseph Osmundson brings readers under the microscope to understand the structure and mechanics of viruses and to examine how viruses like HIV and COVID-19 have redefined daily life.

Osmundson's buoyant prose builds on the work of the activists and thinkers at the forefront of the HIV/AIDS crisis and critical scholars like Jose Esteban Munoz to navigate the intricacies of risk reduction, draw…


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Wrightsville Beach

By Suzanne Goodwyn,

Book cover of Wrightsville Beach

Suzanne Goodwyn Author Of Wrightsville Beach

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I have been writing all my life, but was never able to find my voice until I had my daughters. It was for them I wrote “Wrightsville Beach”. I wanted to show them what a good relationship should look like and how their decisions make a difference in where they will go. I want my readers to relive that feeling of falling in love and to be sent in unexpected directions, as life so often does to us. I want you to enjoy it so much, you don’t want to put the book down until it’s finished and once you do, to sit and reflect on it, savoring the feeling it has left behind.

Suzanne's book list on smart women trying to figure it all out

What is my book about?

Two years ago, devastated by the sudden death of his older brother, Hank Atwater went on a drinking rampage that ended in his being arrested. Since then, he has been working to rebuild his reputation in his hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, with little luck. But everything changes after a chance meeting with Jess Wade, a UNCW student studying to be a marine biologist. Hank and Jess feel connected to each other in a way neither has ever felt before.

But when Hank’s past leads to a frightful incident, it ends their relationship. Jess leaves to work on the beach…

Wrightsville Beach

By Suzanne Goodwyn,

What is this book about?

Two years ago, Hank Atwater made a terrible mistake. Devastated by the sudden death of his older brother, Rob, he went on a drinking rampage that ended in his being arrested for aggravated assault. Sober since then, he has been working to rebuild his reputation in his hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, with little luck.

Working a dead-end delivery job, Hank uses surfing and running to deal with being ostracized as he waits for his probation to end. But everything changes after a chance meeting with Jess Wade, a UNCW student studying to be a marine biologist. Hank and Jess…


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Interested in HIV/AIDS, epidemics, and Illinois?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about HIV/AIDS, epidemics, and Illinois.

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