Let’s just cut to the chase: this fascinating look at a mostly forgotten aspect of World War II is engrossing, powerful, and delightful. You should read it.
Guptill Manning tells the story of the 141 million books sent to American troops during World War II. In response to Nazi book burnings and the Nazi’s total takeover of German media and culture, America resolved to fight back against Germany’s totalitarian propaganda and censorship with a whole-hearted embrace of books and the ideas within them. If Germany was going to burn books and blacklist authors, America would respond by not only preserving those very same books reviled by the Nazi party but also by sending as many books as possible to American troops. As one librarian said, if Hitler’s Mein Kampf could “stir millions to fight for intolerance and oppression and hate, cannot other books be found to stir other millions to fight against them?”
Led by the American Library Association, the Victory Book Campaign was organized to collect donated books at schools and libraries across the country to be sent to training camps and deployed troops. In just over a year and a half they far exceeded their 10 million book goal, sending 18 million books, all donated by citizens and organized by volunteers. Beginning in September 1943, a collection of representatives from the top book publishers, the Council on Books in War, started printing and sending tens of thousands of Armed Services Editions of paperback books. The unprecedented cooperation between competing publishers, the care and thoughtfulness that went into selecting which titles to send, the astounding number of books they would eventually print—123 million—and the daunting logistics of organizing 60,000-80,000 volumes a month to be shipped to units all over the world, is impressive enough. But one of my favorite pieces of this story was the feat of figuring out how to print a pocket sized paperback book suitable for troops to carry.
In 1943, paperbacks were a tiny fraction of the book business, relegated to five-and-dime stores and snobbishly viewed as wholly inferior to the handsome hardcovers carried by booksellers. Sending books to American troops was not just a moral and political endeavor; designing a book that was small, lightweight, and portable, but which would hold up to the rigors of war, and which could be printed for next to nothing, and stay within publishers’ harsh paper rations—they were reduced to using only 37% of the paper they had used before the war and were simultaneously asked to print more books than ever—was a feat of book design engineering, one that changed the face of publishing forever.
Now, a disclaimer: I am, without a doubt, the ideal audience for this book. I’m a book lover with an interest in the social impacts of history. I started my career in publishing when I was 19 and never looked back. I briefly worked in book design and in my current role I recommend titles for troops both deployed and reintegrating. Guptill Manning and her publisher could not hope for an audience better suited to this book than I am. So I recognize that I am perhaps not the most objective reviewer in this instance. But none of that contradicts the fact that this is quite simply a fascinating story and one that appeals to a lot of different audiences for different reasons.
I read 50 pages of this book while waiting at the doctor’s office. I breezed through another 70 Saturday morning while my children played in the next room, with only a shouted, “What’s going on in there?” substituting for actual parenting. I finished it in one rapid page-turning evening the following day. It didn’t feel like a page-turner. I was startled to see that I had read so much and that it was already time to make the kids’ lunch. It’s not the kind of page-turner where you just have to read the next page and the next to find out what happens. It’s the kind of page-turner where you don’t even realize time is passing, you don’t even realize you’re turning the pages, you just fall completely into the past and this incredible effort we as a country mounted to supply American troops with reading material.
I am not a loud, flag-waving, drum-beating patriot and I readily admit America’s flaws. I am a quiet patriot who avoids talk of American exceptionalism, but the story this book tells makes me swell with pride of country. It is a story that makes you sit back and say, “We did that.” And the truth is, we’re still doing it. Guptill Manning ends her book with the close of the war, but because of my work with Findaway, I know that nearly 3 million Playaway audiobooks and countless print books have been sent to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan through the same military service program that funded the Armed Services Editions. America’s commitment to supply our troops with reading material did not end with Japan’s capitulation, nor did the impact of those books on soldiers’ lives. Findaway still regularly receives letters of thanks like those shared in Guptill Manning’s book. Whatever else we’ve gotten wrong in our treatment of our soldiers, the story told in When Books Went to War is a bright spot of when we came together to help our men and women in uniform. The closing lines of the Afterword say it all:
It is estimated that more than 100 million books perished over the course of the war. This figure includes books that were destroyed by air raids and bombs as well as by book burnings. Through the efforts of the Council on Books in Wartime, over 123 million Armed Services Editions were printed. The Victory Book Campaign added 18 million donated books to the total number distributed to American troops. More books were given to the American armed services than Hitler destroyed.
Book lovers and history buffs will certainly find much to enjoy in When Books Went to War, but so will casual readers and family members of World War II service members. Publishing professionals will enjoy the glimpse into our industry’s past and librarians will enjoy the role of the American Library Association in being the first to declare and brilliantly execute on the need for books in the military. Political junkies will get a kick out of the all-too-familiar partisan bickering that affected funding and the selection of which books to send. Past and current service men and women will enjoy the stories from soldiers about how the books helped them and the evolution of the nation’s commitment to providing reading material. The appendices listing a selection of the authors who were banned in German-occupied territory and a complete listing of all the Armed Services Editions, as well as the extensive end notes, will please hard core history fans. As the Council on Books in War strove to provide books for all interests and reading tastes, When Books Went to War has something for everyone. Guptill Manning has rescued from history a story for us all.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 12/2/2014. Audio published by Blackstone Audio 12/2/2014.