Sunday, March 1, 2015

When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II is for book lovers. At the beginning of the war, a Victory Book Campaign committee began soliciting donated books for soldiers. It soon became clear that lightweight, portable books were needed instead of donated hardcover titles and a new idea was launched. The logistical and political problems of providing small, paperback books to troops all over the world were daunting and some opposed the plan, but a consortium of librarians, military personnel, authors, publishers, and printers worked together to make sure men in combat had books to read. The unanticipated results included the resurrection of The Great Gatsby from obscurity, the beginning of the paperback becoming a reading staple, and the creation of a generation of men who loved to read.

The way Manning describes the popularity of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn makes me want to read that wonder of a novel again (for the third or fourth time) just to see it as Manning shows it through servicemen's eyes. Soldiers and sailors wrote Smith to tell her how her words transported them to life back home. One wrote Smith comparing the book to “a good letter from home.” Another wrote: “books are one of our rare pleasures.” Smith estimated that she received about four letters a day from servicemen and she responded to almost all of them. One wrote that “he and his wife planned to have a child when he returned home, and if it was a girl, they would name her Betty Smith.” When Books Went to War is at its best when sharing such vibrant stories of men finding joy in reading.

My favorite part of the book is the thirty-page Appendix B: Armed Service Editions, a chronological listing of all 1200 printed titles. Seeing books like Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling, Lloyd C. Douglas’s The Robe, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Voltaire’s Candide, Ernie Pyle’s Here is Your War, and William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy alongside bodice rippers, poetry, history, science, sports, mysteries, classics, and humor spoke to the care with which the titles were selected. It also made me realize the education these men received while riding on troop ships, sitting in foxholes, and recovering in hospitals.

One thing that sets this book apart from other World War II histories is that it concisely tells the story thus it’s always fresh and engaging. That uncensored titles were being read by men fighting against a regime that burned books is something that everyone should want to know. In the end over 123 million special Armed Service Edition books were distributed and an additional 18 million books were donated to the cause via the Victory Book Campaign thus many more books were given to the men fighting than Hitler had destroyed.

Summing it Up: Read this moving history of getting books to soldiers who needed and cherished them to appreciate the power of words to win the war and to create a peacetime world of value. This is a fast-paced, yet inspiring portrait of a little-known U.S. program that made a difference in so many lives and it's the rare book about war that has a happy ending.

Rating:  4 stars   
Category: Nonfiction, Grandma's Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: December 2, 2014
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