When Books Went to War

When Books Went to War

Being a bibliophile is fun.  Just when you think you’ve heard everything that’s interesting and unique in the world of books you run across something that has never been deeply explored before.  Such is the case with When Books Went to War, a book written by Molly Guptill Manning, a young attorney for the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City.  The unlikely subject of her second book was the decision to give millions of small, low-cost paperback books to our soldiers, sailors and marines during World War II, and the huge role those books played in boosting their morale.  Manning learned about this subject while researching her first book, The Myth of Ephraim Tutt, and we should all be glad she did.

When Books Went to War begins with the book burnings that took place in Germany in 1933, and goes on to tell the story of how some very dedicated people used that, in part, to make sure that our servicemen had access to a wide variety of books – books that were no longer available in occupied Europe.

In an appendix she lists a few of the authors whose books were burned and banned by the Nazis.  Some like those of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and other Jews were obvious targets since the Nazis wanted to exterminate them and their ideas, but why would they immolate the works of Helen Keller, Ernest Hemingway, Émile Zola, H. G. Wells, John Gunther, G. K. Chesterton, Voltaire, and Jack London?

Throughout the book Manning gives us a well crafted chronology of key moments in the war.  While people my age know a great deal about World War II, many young people have no concept of the sacrifices our military personnel and those back in the U.S. made in order for us to finally defeat Germany, Italy, and Japan.

The actual story about how books went to war begins with a drive to collect ten million books for our military men.  Though the goal was finally reached – mostly through book donations by individuals – many of the books, such as How to Knit, weren’t what our men needed or wanted to read.  Also, most of the books were bulky and heavy hardbacks because paperbacks had just been introduced at that time.  So the weight and size of the books made them impractical for men who had to carry everything in their pockets or in their backpacks.

In 1943 the Council on Books in Wartime, an organization of people in the publishing world, was formed to provide the appropriate books that the men needed desperately to relieve their stress of war.  The Council had two goals: to provide a variety of books that would appeal to soldiers, sailors, and marines in a format that would be appropriate – small, light-weight, and durable.  What they came up with was a paperback book that would fit in a man’s hip pocket.  It was wider than it was tall so that it could contain two columns of print (for ease of reading), and it was made of paper similar to the quality used for newspapers.  One of the odd things about the manufacturing process of the books was that staples were used to bind the pages together rather than glue because bugs would eat the glue, and because moisture would melt it.  Despite the conditions these books were exposed to on the front lines, they turned out to be quite durable.

Armed Services Edition

The books the Council created were called Armed Services Editions (ASEs), and they were chosen by an editorial board.  Beginning in September 1943 (and every month thereafter until June 1947) a new set of books was printed and shipped to our men wherever they were fighting – no location was considered too remote.  They were also sent to military hospitals and training centers.  The first set contained 30 titles which included fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.  Below is a partial list of the books in the first set:

  • The Education of Hyman Kaplan by Leonard Q. Ross
  • Report from Tokyo by Joseph C. Grew
  • Good Intentions by Ogden Hash
  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  • Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
  • My World and Welcome to It by James Thurber
  • The Human Comedy by William Saroyan
  • The Making of Modern Britain by John Bartlett Brebner and Allan Nevins
  • The Arabs by Philip K. Hitti
  • The Unvanquished by Howard Fast
  • Miracles of Military Medicine by Albert Q. Maisel
  • The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene
  • Typee by Herman Melville
  • Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
  • Storm over the Land by Carl Sandburg

One of the books included in the October 1945 set was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great GatsbyGatsby never sold well and was largely forgotten by 1945, but the GIs loved it and it soon became very popular and remains so today.

Over time the number of titles published each month changed as did the total number of sets that were printed.  But there was one constant throughout the war: the men could never get enough of them.  They traded books among themselves, and loaned them to British soldiers who had no such books available to them.  Even in a foxhole with bombs dropping from above a book like Oliver Twist or The Unvanquished would momentarily free their minds from the fear of imminent death.  And, believe it or not, on D-Day wounded men were found at the base of the cliffs on Omaha beach patiently reading their ASEs while awaiting medical attention.

There were a few low points in this story as well.  One was an attempt at censorship when some well-meaning but misguided people decided that some books were unfit for our fighting men to read.  Those books included Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor and Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith.  They were favorites of the GIs in part because of the explicit sex scenes.  And this censorship struck many as similar to what the Nazis were guilty of.  The censors finally had to back off.

Another attempt at censorship occurred when Senator Robert Taft attached a poorly worded amendment to an important military bill.  The amendment prohibited the publication of books for our servicemen that contained anything related to politics.  The penalty for breaking this law was a fine of $1,000 and/or one year in prison.  Because the editors of the ASEs didn’t know how strictly the law would be enforced, they were afraid to publish almost anything for fear of going to prison.  And the amendment even applied to magazines.  Since Strange Fruit was considered indecent at the time, a magazine editor was told that copies of his magazine could not contain an advertisement for the obscene book since the magazine would be distributed to our servicemen.  He published the advertisement anyway.

The Council on Books in Wartime fought back by sending letters concerning the amendment to every major magazine and newspaper in the U.S.  The resulting articles were brutal.  The military was also subject to the Taft amendment and there was fear that using training manuals that contained material that could be interpreted as being political, even a photograph of President Roosevelt with the caption “Commander-In-Chief,” would cause trouble.  All of this publicity finally lead to the repeal of Taft’s amendment.

Armed Services Edition 3

Manning includes numerous excerpts from letters written by GIs that show just how much they loved the ASEs.  She also includes letters sent by servicemen to the authors of the books they loved.  One of the most popular books among the men was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.  Ms Smith received an average of four letters a day from appreciative GIs.  One young soldier’s letter told of how her book helped him to feel human again after the horrible things he had experienced in war.  Some of the authors, including Smith, corresponded with the soldiers who wrote to them.

The books our fighting men read did more than simply get their minds off the horrors of war.  One of the lasting benefits was that many non-readers became readers, and many of them took advantage of the “GI Bill” which offered assistance to veterans who wanted to get educations or training when they returned home.  One paragraph in the book tells it all:

“By the time this generation of veterans returned home, many had already tackled Plato, Shakespeare, and Dickens from the frontlines.  Others had read about history, business, mathematics, science, journalism, and law.  When faced with the opportunity to earn a college degree, these men had already proven that they could apply their energies to an activity as scholarly as reading and thrive.  After all, if they could read and learn burrowed in a foxhole between shell bursts, surely they could handle a course of study in a classroom.”

In fact, as Manning points out, many of these veterans set the grade curve in the courses they took because they were mature and disciplined.  The younger students, she says, sometimes complained bitterly that they had to work like slaves to keep up with the veterans.

I’m happy that through Ms Manning’s book we now have a record of how, even in the midst of a world war, books brought pleasure, knowledge, and even solace to those who fought for our freedom – including our freedom to read whatever we wish.

If you would like to learn more about World War II, you might enjoy The Christian Science Monitor’s list of ten noteworthy books about World War II.

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