When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning turned out to be bit thinner and lighter than I expected but was enjoyable nonetheless. The focus of the book is World War II and efforts undertaken to provide American troops with a constant flow of books. The effort was for two reasons, first and foremost, it was to counteract the war of ideas Hitler had unleashed with his book, Mein Kampf and the demoralizing radio broadcasts that he used to bombard the airwaves to make people think that he was right in his philosophy and there was no way to stop him or his army. The second and just as important reason for books was to provide the troops with something to do during all their hours of downtime and help them keep up morale.
The move to provide the troops with books began before the United States actually entered the war. A draft was instituted and suddenly thousands of men had to go off to training camps, some of which had not even been built yet. Librarians across the country began coordinating and holding book donation drives to provide all of the soldiers in training reading material. It was a huge success.
Once the U.S. entered the war, however, the librarians were told their books were not wanted any longer. Part of it was that all of the books at that time were large hardcovers and hardcover books were not troop friendly. When you have to march all day and your pack is already heavy, do you want to add a hardcover book to it? No. So the War Department and publishers got together and created a group called the Council on Books in Wartime. While there were a few publishers that had been experimenting with paperback books before the war, it was the creation of American Service Editions (ASEs) that brought paperback books to the masses.
Paper was being rationed and books had to be able to fit into a soldier’s pocket. The ASEs were designed to be light and small and readable anywhere. They were such a success the number of books printed each month had to be increased several times in order to keep up with the demand. The books were printed in a series beginning with series “A” which had thirty titles. Each book had a thumbnail picture of the original cover and its letter and number in the series. Oftentimes the most popular books would be called solely by their series letter-number combo. One of the most in demand titles was D-117, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
A set of books would be sent to a unit and passed around. Reading ASEs became such the rage that if you didn’t read them there was something wrong with you. And their portability made sure they got read everywhere from training camp to hospital, from foxhole to the beaches of Normandy where the men who made it to the cliffs but were wounded and could not continue sat, hunkered down, reading while waiting for medical help to reach them.
As important as the program was it was not without its problems and controversies. Some of the books were considered to be lewd or inappropriate and attempts were made by groups in the US to ban certain titles. There was also a bill passed in congress that threatened the entire program’s existence. The bill placed restrictions on the kinds of subject matter allowed in combat zones. Nothing that the government deemed political argument or political propaganda of any kind would be allowed. Violators would be fined and prosecuted. The bill was so vague the Council chose to interpret it in its broadest sense. This meant a very popular biography of Woodrow Wilson was not allowable along with a slew of other books. There was such an angry outpouring of letters from troops and from their families at home that the government very quickly amended the bill and set everything aright.
By the end of the war there were 1,200 different ASE titles and over 120 million books printed. The Council as well as authors received so many grateful letters from the frontlines and innumerable comments about how the ASEs had turned people into readers who had never been interested in books before.
When the GI Bill was passed providing those who had served a free college education, a great many men who went to university were inspired to do so because of the books they had read. In addition, all those new readers returning home wanted to continue reading. As a result the publishing industry boomed and the market for paperback books took off not only among the returning troops but within the general population as well.
I loved reading about this aspect of WWII, what book lover wouldn’t? The book itself is rather slim for a history, only 194 pages. And it doesn’t go into in-depth details or studies of people and places. There is also a bit of a repetitive feel to it, how many letters from servicemen about how great the ASEs are can be quoted before they all kind of meld together? When Books Went to War is still a good read. And Manning provides a complete list of all the ASE titles and their numbers in an appendix at the back of the book so prepare to add some titles to your TBR lists and piles.