Wednesday, March 11, 2015

I would highly recommend When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning to anyone who cares about books, or about people in military service (and what kind of person are you if neither of those applies to you?). It covers a facet of daily lives of American service people in World War II that I had never heard of, despite having a degree in library science, and I easily imagine my grandfathers, both of whom served in WWII, reading Armed Services Edition books on Pacific islands. You don't often think about how people pass the everyday time away from home in a situation where everything has to be shipped to them (particularly at a time when the most advanced entertainment technology was the radio, and the broadcast with the best reception might be "Tokyo Rose" spewing propaganda). First libraries' "Victory Book Campaign" donated books, and then Armed Services Editions printed especially to be sent out to GIs, gave a lot of Americans (and even other countries' service people, when they were working with Americans) a leisure distraction and chance at relaxation or education, whether in a trench or on a ship or even in a prisoner of war camp. As one sailor said about their value, no matter how beat up, "To heave one in the garbage can is tantamount to striking your grandmother."

That in itself is an important enough subject to know about, and think about for service people now. There are multiple charities and campaigns devoted to getting reading material to US military stationed outside the country, such as:

However, the Armed Services Editions' millions of copies of 1322 different books also influenced peacetime publishing and reading. They spread the idea of paperbacks, which had been previously been rare in bookstores and more likely to be cheap afterthoughts in a drugstore. They made some books and authors famous; the ones mentioned in particular are F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, a commercial failure when it was first published, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. There's an interesting story about the political wrangling before the 1944 Presidential elections where opponents of incumbent President Franklin Roosevelt attempted to limit the political discussions that could be part of the ASE books and other material available to the military, and the uproar over censorship that followed. And at the end of the war, there were continued readers who hadn't been before the war, some of whom used the GI Bill subsidies to go to college when they never would have thought of that before the war (and were good enough students to be called "Damned Average Raisers" by their younger classmates). These "books that went to war" ended up influencing the social and economic climate of the United States for decades.