First Line: "Were you ever so upset emotionally that you had to tell someone about it, to sit down and write it out?" a Marine asked in a letter to author Betty Smith.
When the Nazis came to power in Germany, they banned and burned over 100 million books and caused citizens in fear for their lives to hide or burn many more. When the U.S. entered World War II, Franklin Roosevelt and other leaders knew that this was a war of ideas. Of one government doing its best to limit access to knowledge and free thought versus other governments that championed their free exchange. As millions of men went overseas to fight, librarians launched a campaign that gathered 20 million hardcover books, but those in Washington, DC knew that it wasn't enough. They couldn't ask the public to strip their own shelves; something bigger was needed, and something better suited to battlefield conditions. In 1943 the War Department and the publishing industry created an extraordinary program: Armed Services Editions (ASE)-- 120 million small, lightweight paperbacks for soldiers to carry in their pockets and rucksacks.
Over 1,200 different titles from almost all possible genres were printed. Soldiers read the ASEs while waiting to land at Normandy, in hellish conditions on remote Pacific islands, on long bombing flights, and in hospitals. These soldiers wrote to the authors, and their reading had other side effects such as rescuing The Great Gatsby from oblivion, and making a national icon of Betty Smith, who wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Armed Services Editions showed us how stories could help win a war, yet few of us know anything about them today.
If you love books, you are going to love When Books Went to War. I knew absolutely nothing about Armed Services Editions before I picked up this book, and once I finished it, I knew that one day I would have to have one of these extraordinary books in my personal library-- and not just because my grandfather fought in the Pacific during World War II.
I was not prepared for the emotional power this book held for me. As I read about a government that tried to plan for all eventualities, I was inspired. Books were a major source of entertainment and enlightenment for soldiers, and much thought was put into the design of the books. Would they fit in a soldier's pockets? Would they fit into rucksacks? How well would they hold up to all sorts of wear and weather? What did the soldiers want to read? What was going to happen when all these soldiers came home? What sorts of jobs could they qualify for? The titles ran the gamut-- from jobs training to Westerns to steamy novels to classics-- and soldiers couldn't get enough.
Publishers had to run to get more titles and many more copies ready to send out. Money was tight, and there was a paper shortage. Publishers cut where they could, including royalties to authors whose books were being printed. During the last print runs of these ASEs, authors were only earning one penny per copy-- and most waived their royalties altogether. The war and the men who were fighting it were of the utmost importance. Many of those fighting soldiers had never had a chance for a decent education. They devoured the ASEs like they were starving. Once the government adjusted the age limitations on the G.I. Bill, thousands upon thousands of these soldiers came home and went on to earn college educations.
Manning pulls no punches in When Books Went to War. As loathsome as what the Nazis were doing in Europe, she does mention existing problems (such as racism) in the U.S. and how these problems affected soldiers, but that is not the focus of this book, and she made a wise decision to avoid that quagmire. She chose to keep the focus on the power and magic of the printed word.
As inspiring as what the government and the publishing industry did, the real, sometimes gut-wrenching, power of When Books Went to War lies in actual heartfelt letters written by soldiers to the authors of the books they'd read, letters that almost every author answered (much to the shock and delight of the soldiers). If I have any complaint at all about this book, it's that Manning didn't include enough of those letters. I would love to read many, many more of them. As it is, Molly Guptill Manning's book is probably the very best book I've read all year. Even though I don't reread books as a rule, I could pick this one up and savor it all over again. I loved it.
When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II
by Molly Guptill Manning
by Molly Guptill Manning
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt © 2014
eBook, 288 pages
Source: Net Galley