This week, I was tasked with looking through the 2000 iteration of the AIDS Chronicles to document exactly which HIV/AIDS-related articles had made their way to the front of the New York Times. It’s easy to talk about these books and what they mean (and we do it all day long), but the experience of sitting down with one and pouring through it is different. We talk a lot about the limits of theory and the power behind action — behind rolling up your sleeves and actually grabbing hold of something real — and I could feel it when I sat down with these massive, unwieldy objects.
I had to be careful when I slid each volume out of its shelf in the ICI library; they’re delicate and extremely heavy. After gingerly heaving them onto the library table, I cracked the book’s long spine, which resisted me after so much time lying dormant. The scope of each page is expansive and overwhelming, the impact of seeing so much blood-red (and so little newsprint) dizzying as the pages accumulate. This is not a book to leaf through, to relax with in an armchair and dogear a page of before you doze off; it’s an object that requires your whole attention as you crane your body over its wide face. The act of reading it demands something from you not just mentally but physically. Each page is designed to feel like skin — cold, textured, resistant, almost rubbery — and when I came across an article, I had to press the leathery pages back so I could take a legible picture of it. I winced when pulling back the protective layer of tracing paper stuck between the pages to get a better shot; it felt like pulling off a band-aid from something that could hurt.
Of course, being a words-person in this temple to the visual, I couldn’t help myself from reading each article before I took its picture. The story we’re here to document bubbled its way to the foreground erratically, sometimes in a whisper, sometimes in a shout. Seeing newsprint after weeks and sometimes months of nothing but blood was always a shock, even if the article itself was just a stub. “1.1 Million Orphaned By AIDS” was the first one I saw, a tiny two-sentence stub in the lower right corner. “More Bad News on H.I.V.,” mumbled another one. In larger articles, AIDS was often thrown away in a sentence or used as a political pawn in the upcoming election (“Bush and Texas Have Not Set High Priority on Health Care”). When actually speaking about people with AIDS, the paper insinuated over and over that it was someone else’s problem — the people who had to worry were Nigerians, South Africans, the Burmese, the Chinese, prisoners in Alabama and Brazil. It said without saying that this was an “other people” problem. Only one article spoke plainly about ordinary Americans still suffering: “New York Is Failing People With AIDS, A U.S. Judge Rules.” It felt like such an aberration that I read it twice.
Through these articles, I felt like I was looking at culture sideways, glancing at something just underneath the text that evaded my vision. Through wrestling with the physicality of these books, I was forced to slow down, to take care, to notice and to notice what I was noticing. Lise has said that the books were first envisioned as props, there to serve the yearly performances on December 1st, but even without the performative aspect, the object made certain demands on me that I had to meet. I’ll be thinking more about that as I consider what sort of demands we want the catalogue to make of its readers down the line.