Monday, December 7, 2020

When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

 Of all the World War II books I've read (and I've read a'plenty), Molly Guptill Manning's 2014 nonfiction work told a story I hadn't heard. Set against Hitler-inspired book burnings in Nazi Germany, the story follows the true account of an American response, providing American soldiers with reading material.

The first step was the Victory Book Campaign, a move started by an organization of librarians to collect book donations to send overseas. The campaign collected a huge number of books, some more appropriate for battlefield reading than others.

Realizing the difficulty of traveling in war time with hardback books, American publishing companies were convinced to work together to produce American Service Editions (ASEs) of popular titles and classics in a small enough size to fit in back pockets. 

The books were such a success that their delivery to servicemen was awaited impatiently. Soldiers who had never considered themselves readers found that books gave them a sense of escape, a chance to laugh, a way to temporarily time travel back home.

Manning addresses some political maneuvers that resulted in censorship during the election year as Roosevelt ran for his last term. For awhile, books deemed the least bit political were forbidden. At a time when the nation was working through how to let soldiers vote, they were for a time barred from reading books to which people back home had easy access.

There were descriptions of books found in operating rooms and foxholes. Despite their inexpensive production, the readers took care so that they could be enjoyed by as many readers as possible. Among the favorites was Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Smith received a regular flood of fan mail throughout the war.

Manning also details the beginnings of the G. I. Bill that allowed returning soldiers to complete their education, another process that took some tweaking along the way. I admit I'm glad they didn't have the Netflix option, which might have prevented so many from becoming lifelong readers.

Even though it's hard to imagine such a program being so popular now, I am reminded of one of my former high school students who emailed occasionally from the Middle East for reading suggestions. Now that I have a number of veterans in my composition classes, I find that many of them admit that they picked up a reading habit during their tours of duty too. I suspect that helps to explain why they make such great participants in our learning community.

At the end of her book, Manning pointed out that the ASEs printed during WWII outnumbered all the books burned by the Nazi regime. She referred to the Empty Library in Berlin, a memorial to that time. Perhaps, she suggested, we need a counterpart in the United States to commemorate this most powerful response. 


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