Wednesday, January 14, 2015

When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

Frankly, Molly Guptill Manning's When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II can be a little dry at times. At the same time, I teared up over and over again. It's hard for a librarian to resist a book that's about, "The inspiring story of an army of librarians, 120 million special paperbacks, and the authors and books that lifted the spirits of our troops."

According to Manning, when American "citizen soldiers" went to war, the war took a physical and psychological toll. This is the story of the movements in the U.S. to see that "America's fighting men were equipped with spirit and resolve to carry them through their battles." It was a movement carried out first by librarians, supported by the American Library Association, who saw that 18 million donated books went to the military. And, it was a movement by publishers of books, magazines and newspapers who joined together to revolutionize publishing to send paperbacks to the armed forces. The Council on Books in Wartime saw that over 123 million Armed Services Editions were printed, books that fit into breast and pants pockets. And, they were books that won over the hearts of American soldiers and sailors.

Many Americans may have been against the country entering the war, but when German university students burned books, and libraries throughout Europe fell to the Nazis, Americans were outraged, writing letters to newspapers. "In Eastern Europe, the ERR burned a staggering 375 archives, 402 museums, 531 institutes and 957 libraries. It is estimated that the Nazis destroyed half of all books inCzechoslovakia and Poland, and fifty-five million tomes in Russia." Hitler attempted to destroy the written word in Europe, but American librarians fought back, urging Americans to read more. It led to a campaign to provide books to soldiers.

Manning's book is an account of the books, the changes in publishing, and the reaction of the armed forces. It's those accounts that moved me. My father-in-law fought in the Pacific, in places such as New Guinea. As the book relates stories of the soldiers, desperate for entertainment and escape, I can see Harry, who talked about playing cards and playing baseball, who fought in terrible battles, but never told us those stories. And, to the very end, he read paperbacks, westerns and mysteries, the kinds of books sent to the servicemen via Armed Services Editions.

Maybe the book is a little dry. It's history, with a list of all of the books in the Armed Services Editions. But, behind those lists and those facts are faces. Those books represent librarians and publishers who believed in the importance of books, servicemen who needed those books, and whose lives were often changed forever, and authors who received grateful notes from men all over the world. It's a story of American defiance in the face of book burning. When Books Went to War does include "The stories that helped us win World War II".

When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2014. ISBN 9780544536022 (hardcover), 267p.

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Triss said...

Lovely blog post about a wonderful topic. Must go find this book immediately. Thanks!

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Triss. My pleasure!

Anonymous said...

I loved the book as well and was surprised at how paperback books came to be.

Lesa said...

Wasn't it interesting, Page? I do love the role that librarians played in pushing books. And, I liked the fact that the committee didn't pick just classics and listened to requests from the servicemen.

Reine said...

Lesa… I had never heard this story before… that Hitler tried to destroy the written word in Europe–the history and identity of the people he sought to eliminate and rule. I had no idea, yet obviously it was a known fact. You would think that at some point in school we would have been taught this fact. It Is the other way humans destroy. Thank you so much for this enlightening review.

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Reine. It was interesting to read the book, and see how it all came about, and the reactions in the U.S. I think there are a lot of things we were never taught in school.