When Books Went to War is a book that makes you want to voraciously read every book in sight, just out of gratitude that it can be done. The book is generally the story of the role books played during WWII – the Nazis burned them and the Americans struggled to send enough books to the millions of men serving – but it is most specifically about the unprecedented printing of over 100 million Army Service Edition books that were shipped overseas and became as necessary to the men as cigarettes, candy bars and letters from home.
Author Molly Guptill Manning begins her book in 1933, when Nazi students burned books in a giant bonfire in Berlin. It was estimated that the Nazis destroyed around 100 million books, in Germany and in other countries. Any books written by Jewish authors (Albert Einstein, Heinrich Heine), Communists or socialists (Karl Marx, H.G. Wells) and even authors like G.K. Chesterton and Helen Keller were banned and ordered removed from library shelves.
America took the opposite tack in fighting WWII. It was not done consciously as a response to Nazi book burning, but is highly illustrative of the two governments. It first began with the Victory Book Campaign. Organized by the American Library Association and encouraged by the government, the VBC worked to get people to donate 10 million books for servicemen. For many men, there were no other forms of recreation and relaxation available, especially overseas, and there was a surprising hunger for books.The VBC was a beginning, but ultimately they could not muster the number of books needed for so many men and the books were often large, hardback copies, not practical in wartime situations.
The Army Service Edition (ASE) of books came into being when a group of men from many of the big publishing companies came together to talk about what they could do to help the war effort. They began with radio programs, but eventually had the idea to publish small, light and portable paperback editions of books for the servicemen. They got funding from the military and within 7 months were shipping out their first batch of books, containing 30 different titles by authors like Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, Herman Melville, James Thurber, Carl Sandburg, C.S. Forester, Joseph Conrad and Ogden Nash. The council tried to make their monthly selection a blend of contemporary fiction (which made up the majority of the books), classics, biography, history, essays, poetry and technical books.
The editions themselves came in two sizes and were specifically designed to fit in a serviceman’s jacket pocket or pants pocket. They were bound with staples on the short side of the book, with printing in two columns on the page for easier reading. They were said to be the most comfortable style of book to read while lying on your back in a hospital.
The books were a sensational success. Men loved them. There would be new titles printed every month and the military did their best to make sure men were supplied with them. Whenever a box of books arrived, men would swarm around them like they were candy. They would read and pass the book on or get in waiting lines for popular books or trade cigarettes and candy bars to move up in the line. Men who had never read before were suddenly reading insatiably.They talked of how it was their one means of escape from the terrible conditions they lived in: it made them laugh, reminded them of home, gave them courage, gave them hope, talked of how they identified with certain characters and it gave catharsis from their experiences that they could not talk about.
The most popular ASE was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, followed by other slightly surprising authors like Katherine Anne Porter and Rosemary Taylor, who wrote A Chicken Every Sunday. They were books that reminded them of home. One soldier even compared reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to receiving a letter from home and another wrote Smith to tell her how reading her book while in a hospital helped him out of depression and restored his ability to feel and care again. Soldiers would write to their favorite authors and often the authors would respond, especially Betty Smith. She not only wrote back, but even corresponded regularly with them.
Other books that were popular were Forever Amber and Strange Fruit, partly because of the more explicit than usual sex scenes they contained, (though Strange Fruit was a book about interracial romance and lynching, was recommended by Eleanor Roosevelt and was not just a tawdry tale). The men were particularly gleeful about reading Forever Amber because it was banned in Boston. It became something of a joke about books banned in Boston.
The ASE’s made lifelong readers out of men who had scarcely ever touched a book before. And it inspired many men to go to college after the war and pursue different careers they had read of or were interested in. One solider wrote Helen MacInness to tell her that her book While We Still Live was the book that turned him into a reader and when he went on to earn a PhD he dedicated his dissertation to her.
You can tell I loved this book. There are so many stories of how books affected the lives of the men reading them and it made me inexpressibly grateful for the access I have to books. It is also extraordinary to read how authors, who weren’t necessarily setting out to write great classics, could have such a profound affect on others. War is such an unmitigated tragedy that it is lovely to read about one thing that was done well during the war – the printing of the books and the council’s broad choice of titles and decision not to censor them – and to read of one thing that was an unmixed good.
For further information on ASEs and a list of all the titles printed, see armedserviceeditions.com.