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When Books Went to War--Reading as a symbol of freedom

August 5, 2016 at 11:12 AM by Cathy Polovina


In, When Books Went to War, author Molly Guptill Manning unveils a fascinating and little known aspect of World War II life for the American G.I.  As comfort for the young soldiers, homesick, scared, but mostly bored—librarians in the U.S. organized the Victory Book Campaign in 1941, calling for donations of books for shipment to troops abroad. Outraged by the stories of Nazi book burning and the destruction of libraries all over Europe, the plan looked like just the thing not only to assuage the tedium of the average soldier’s everyday existence but to make the point that freedoms, like the freedom to read, were worth fighting for.

But this is just the beginning of the story.  The campaign’s efforts proved successful (receiving over 6 1/5 million books) but inefficient, as so many donated books tended to be either old unwieldy hardbacks or simply unsuited to the average young man’s interests. The War Department came up with a scheme in 1943 to work with publishers to produce pocket-sized paperback editions that would be easy to read and to stow, and to reproduce the most appealing titles.  They established the Council on Books in Wartime, and begun by publishing 50,000 copies of 50 titles in editions small enough (5 1/2 X 3 7/8 inches for a 320 page book) to keep in a breast pocket.  Over the course of the war American troops wielded 120 million books comprising 12,000 titles as the made their way from Hawaii to Berlin boosting morale and exhorting the power of the written word.

These Armed Services Editions were tiny and ephemeral (which makes them real collector’s items today), but their stories and ideas influenced a generation.  Lonesome young men were touched by the poignant story of a young girl who fought for an education in Betty Smith’s, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and helped to revitalize the reputation of F. Scott Fitzgerald with their enthusiasm for his long out-of-print, but soon-to-be classic, The Great Gatsby. Mysteries, westerns, biographies, and adventures distracted them from the hellish reality of D-Day and helped them to hold out during the Battle of the Bulge.  Young men who had never read a book outside of school were moved to write to contemporary authors such as Smith to thank them for their work and to share their own stories. The wealth of accessible books often inspired soldiers from working class and immigrant families who had never thought of attending college to apply for the G.I. Bill after the war and pursue a higher education.

Molly Manning’s vivid story will appeal to the history buff and the book lover, as it draws us into the life of the grunt absorbed with Raymond Chandler in the trenches or killing time with Zane Gray in a field hospital. In a time when the power and beauty of language is often subsumed by texting and sound bites—where digital media is omnipresent, it is instructive to remember that the simple, but profound pleasure of a story that involves the imagination and brings us into another world can change lives—and perhaps even save them.