I know I said I was a fiction freak and that I would be reviewing lots of novels, but I just couldn’t resist a book about books written by a lawyer!
Anybody who is passionate about books and reading will be intrigued to read about the multi-faceted role that books played in World War II, as described in Molly Guptill Manning’s “When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II”. Manning sets the stage with a vivid description of the 1933 book burnings in Berlin, symbolizing Nazi Germany’s war on ideas and foreshadowing the brutality and intolerance that came next. Manning describes the impact books, libraries and publishers had on various aspects of the war, including the evolution of the Armed Services Edition (ASE) of books. She also describes the politics behind providing books to US forces throughout the war, the emotional lifeline books provided to soldiers during the war and the benefits wartime reading brought to the soldiers after the war. The best parts of the book focus on the creation and evolution of ASEs, the logistics and politics of providing ASEs to the soldiers and the immeasurable extra dimension that these books brought to the soldier’s lives.
Manning explains that before the creation of ASEs, libraries launched local book drives to provide books to soldiers in order to keep them informed and to keep them distracted from the difficulties of military service. In 1941, the American Library Association launched a national book drive, known as the ALA’s National Defense Book campaign, later renamed the Victory Book Campaign after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The campaign succeeded in collecting more than 10 million books but collections began to slow and the books were generally too big and too heavy for soldiers to carry into battle. In 1941, the Council on Books in Wartime, a collaboration of writers, publishers, book sellers and others, was created and shortly thereafter came the Armed Services Edition, a small light weight mass produced paperback. In cooperation with publishers and authors, more than 1,322 titles were published and 123 million books were distributed to soldiers throughout World War II, until the ASE program ended in September of 1947.
The most passionate descriptions of the impact of the ASEs are evoked by letters and testimonials from soldiers themselves. In a visually haunting description of the devastation at Omaha Beach, Manning writes that “Many men who climbed the beach later that day would never forget the sight of gravely wounded soldiers propped up against the base of the cliffs, reading.” Many soldiers became attached to the authors of the books they read. In a letter to Betty Smith, the author of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, one soldier writes “Were you ever so upset emotionally that you had to tell someone about it and write it out. That is how I feel now…I just wanted you to understand that despite my youth I have seen a little bit of suffering…I don’t think I would be able to sleep this night unless I bared my heart to the person who caused it to live again.”
As interesting as the story of ASEs can be, the book could have been better. Manning gets distracted with other aspects of the war, including superficial descriptions of battles and politics, causing the book to lose focus and at times become repetitive. With the exception of the soldier testimonials, the storytelling lacks passion and the writing is at best flat, at times feeling like a lawyerly recitation of facts and figures.
If you can get past the writing and some of the book’s other flaws, “When Books Went to War” is an interesting description of the role of books in World War II.
The book can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11144184?lang=eng.