'When Books Went To War' about the war of conflicting ideas


Having taught history years ago, I've long believed the World War II book market had been saturated by decades of one excellent title after another. Yet an astutely timed Christmas present recently changed my mind that there are still fresh stories to tell.

It also reminded me that in this era of digital instant self-gratification, we owe so much to the fact that we can still hold a paper volume in our hands, and read it cover to cover.

Which was the whole point, really, of the Armed Services Editions, a cohort of volumes carefully chosen to send to the front lines in a partnership between the military and the world of publishing. The initiative was not just one to help boost the morale of tens of millions of U.S. service members worldwide, it was also about the war of ideas.

This welcome addition to the World War II opus comes from Molly Guptill Manning, an attorney for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York City, and has, since its 2015 publication, been released in trade soft cover, and achieved the status of New York Times Bestseller: "When Books Went To War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II" (Mariner Books, 2015, Paperback, 267 pages, $15.95).

The context behind the story is just as important as Manning's crisply written account. When the U.S. declared war on the Axis powers following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, not only was the world ablaze in armed combat, but conflicting ideologies were at play in the struggles between free people and those who would subjugate them.

In this vein, away from the battlefields but all around home fronts everywhere, Axis powers had banned and burned over 100 million books and caused conquered peoples to hide or destroy many more.

This was a trigger to something deeper than military action. As soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen headed overseas, stateside librarians took action. They propelled a movement to send free books to American troops both training at home and deployed globally and began by rounding up 20 million hardcover donations. The undertaking, as Manning writes, was not without its nascent road blocks and head-shaking:

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"By early March 1942, 4 million books had been collected. Yet sorting centers rejected 1.5 million of them as unsuitable for training camps. Many of the early pleas for books did not mention the (seemingly obvious) need for the public to provide books specifically suited for young men in the services. In some instances, it seemed that the public may have confused the book drive and the waste paper campaign. Newspapers had a field day reporting some of the titles donated. `How to Knit,' `An Undertaker's Review,' and `Theology in 1870' were among the million and a half books that would not be sent to the servicemen."

In 1943, however, publishers nationwide and the War Department stepped into the fray with a complementary brainchild: 120 million small, lightweight paperbacks, for troops to carry in their pockets and their rucksacks, on land, sea and in air.

The idea took off faster than an artillery shell propelled towards enemy lines. With 1,200 diverse titles on every conceivable subject available, the troops instantly took to these pocket books. Indeed, Manning's publisher encapsulates the highlights, offering up the nugget that the author explores in her account: the Armed Services Editions also "made" many cultural literary icons as a result, even saving some from insignificance and the dust bins of history:

"Soldiers read them while waiting to land at Normandy; in hellish trenches in the midst of battles in the Pacific; in field hospitals; and on long bombing flights. They wrote to the authors, many of whom responded to every letter. They helped rescue `The Great Gatsby' from obscurity. They made Betty Smith, author of `A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,' into a national icon."

This is a story that will attract bibliophiles, as well as those who love history. Manning writes with great clarity, and offers up 70 pages of appendices, lists of authors in the program, and copious end notes which reveal a nearly obsessive detail in her research documentation, as may befit an attorney.

A bestseller with reduced paperback pricing and whose narrative is just under 200 pages makes for a breezy read that still carries historical gravitas. This is a story of books and the ideals of freedom of thought and expression that is a deeply meaningful read for free citizens everywhere.

Reach award-winning freelance journalist Telly Halkias at: E-mail: tchalkias@aol.com, Twitter: @TellyHalkias


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