Just before Christmas, I heard a book review on NPR that caught my attention. Shortly afterward, a catalogue/advertisement came in the mail from our local independent bookstore, and the same book was one of the featured offerings: When Books Went to War. The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning. I pointed it out to my husband. Happily, the book appeared under the Christmas tree.
This is the uplifting narrative of a determined campaign to keep the U.S. troops in WWII supplied with books. It’s hard to imagine 1) how many hours–tedious and terrifying hours–the soldiers had to spend and 2) how pleased and grateful they were to fill those hours with books.
Initially, a used-book donation campaign, run by librarians, gathered upwards of 20 million books. While wildly successful in many ways, this book drive had its flaws. Not all the books were of the type enjoyed by servicemen. And, they tended to be bulky hardcovers, heavy and difficult to transport. Something else was needed.
So, the War Department banded together with the publishing industry to produce paperback books in a tremendous volume and breadth: The Armed Service Editions. They published novels, histories, biographies, philosophy, poetry, plays, books on science, humor, music, self-help, short story collections, travel. . .pretty much anything. The books were small enough to fit in the soldier’s pocket. Over the course of the war, 120 million of these books were printed and distributed.
When Books Went to War is a surefire crowd pleaser for book lovers. It places books right up there as one of the most important weapons used against the enemy. And it essentially credits the Armed Service Editions with improving the educational status of a generation of men, inspiring them to come home and take advantage of the GI bill. It’s also nice to see how the government agencies worked with private industry to help the soldiers and no one attempted to get rich by profiteering. And, when the enterprise was nearly derailed by censorship during some election year hijinks, politicians, bureaucrats, the military and the press worked together to save the program. If it wasn’t for the horrors of the war necessitating the books in the first place, this is one of those books that would make you wish for those happier, simpler times. But, of course, nothing is that simple. There was a war going on.
Manning does not give an in-depth history of the war, but she does use the war’s timeline to provide a framework for what is happening in the world and with the book program. It’s a concise summary of events, wrapped up in a thoroughly heartwarming story of the pleasure of reading and the extremes the War Department went to in order to ensure the GIs were provided with books to read.