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When Books Went to War: The Stories that…

When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II (2014)

by Molly Guptill Manning

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Hitler’s “total war” included a war on books and the ideas they contained. The grim beginning of this war is described in the foreword to Steven Vincent Benét’s work “They Burned the Books”, recounting the thousands of books that were burned in a symbolic gesture in Berlin in 1933.

“On May 10, 1933, a tribe of barbarians retreated to the dark forests of the mind from which they had come, and made a bonfire of twenty-five thousand books in which men had set down their belief in themselves. These books included the great classics of the modern world, and later a ban was laid against the Word on which the conscience of Christendom rests - the Old Testament and the New. The burning and banning of these books, as symbolic as the Crucifixion itself, was a declaration of war, a war against mankind waged by that part of mankind that wishes to be less than itself.”

It was the beginning of the bibliocaust of WWII. By the end of this war, 100 million books had been destroyed, either intentionally in sanctioned book burnings, or as casualties of fire, bombings, etc.

America launched a counter-offensive in the war on ideas by creating the Victory Book Campaign and the Council on Books in Wartime. Together, these two groups collected and produced books for the servicemen overseas to read and take comfort in. It was described as the most successful morale-boosting activity of the war.

By the end of the war, they had produced and sent 123 million books overseas to both the European and Pacific theaters, thereby exceeding the number destroyed by war.
( )
  LisaBurns1066 | Jun 9, 2019 |
Excellent! It was inspiring to read of the efforts (and obstacles overcome) to provide the fighting men of WWII with reading material as they were fighting. It's daunting, and inspiring, to read of the unquenchable thirst for books those soldiers and sailors had. ( )
  mrklingon | Apr 22, 2019 |
Who knew? During World War II, publishers worked with the U.S. government to produce ASEs--Armed Service Editions--for soldiers overseas. Manning begins with a god set-piece describing a Berlin book burning and then explains in subsequent chapters how the ASEs were weapons in the war of ideas. The chapter on D-Day and the many letters that G.I.s sent to authors such as Betty Smith is surprisingly moving. Manning also connects the over 120 million ASEs to the G.I. Bill and rise in soldierly reading after the war. Like Goodreads, Manning's book affirms anyone's faith in the common reader. A good story, well and succinctly told. ( )
  Stubb | Aug 28, 2018 |
Did I read the same book as other reviewers? I have to say, I'm really confused by the high praise this book is getting. It's a really interesting topic: the role books played for US soldiers in WWII. I don't think I've ever encountered this particular topic (there's propaganda, but that's more for people at home, rather than the soldiers themselves). I thought, a book about books? During a very dark time at home and for soldiers abroad? Sounds interesting!
Instead, it's an incredibly dry retelling of the role books played for the men (unfortunately it was decided that women didn't need this service) who fought on the beaches, in the trenches, and at sea. What began as a book drive evolved into what we now know as mass market paperbacks: books that could easily fit into a soldier's pocket and could be read while they waited, before they went to sleep, when on a break, when traveling, during recuperation from injury, etc.
Some stories were incredibly touching: men who were gravely wounded passed waiting time for medics by reading, soldiers recuperating or homesick wrote to authors saying they had given the men a little piece of home and to thank them for writing these books, etc. It was really interesting to see how some soldiers actually established a rapport with some (post-war, one author saw an uptick of soldiers enrolling in his university class, another dedicated his PhD dissertation to another author, thanking her for inspiring him to read).
Unfortunately these really fascinating parts are stuck between extremely dry retelling of war history (and also making it very US-centric, which is part of the book's purpose, but also perhaps glosses over the uglier parts). The author's style just doesn't flow well for me, and even the book-focused sections sometimes needed me to really sit through it.
While I'm glad I read it, I'm also really glad I didn't buy it. Definitely library or borrow elsewhere. I think only WWII historians would really want it (I don't think hardcore book lovers or librarians would want it for their own personal collection unless they are also historians). ( )
  acciolibros | Feb 11, 2018 |
I picked up When Books Went to War as a gift for my mother (sorry Mom, now you know…) and thought I’d have no interest in reading it. Mom reads more history than I do, especially WWII which she experienced as a young girl on the home front.

Still thinking it wouldn’t appeal, I dipped into it one evening. Before I knew it, I was several chapters in, fascinated by the idea, creation, distribution and importance of Armed Services Editions (ASEs) paperback books.

The idea was conceived by a wartime government entity- delightfully named The Council on Books in Wartime. Their slogan was “Books are weapons in the war of ideas”. Prior to this, private citizens were asked to donate books for the troops, but the effort proved disastrous as citizens unloaded books they didn’t want. Additionally, this was before paperbacks had been fully embraced by either the publishers or the reading public. The many donated hard backs proved unwieldy for use other than in military hospital libraries or training facilities. No one had figured out how to print small, lightweight books that could be carried by infantry soldiers into the battle trenches.

When Books Went to War tells the fascinating story of how a few publishers employed the Reader Digest magazine printers to produce these small and invaluable volumes. I learned how they used the two-up method — where two books were printed on one page. Because of this, printers staff had the tedious job of counting pages, words and characters in order to match similarly sized books. Given paper rationing, every page was used and an initial run had the typeface so small, they were impossible to read. But after these few initial failures – the ASE were born.

The book is interspersed with letters from the soldiers at the front – there’s a brilliant description of the daily rigors of an infantryman to letters of thanks from soldiers who eagerly awaited the ASE’s.

The best chapter in the book is called "Grab a Book Joe and Keep Goin’". The chapter title refers to the rule that when the books arrived, and the soldiers lined up the pick out a book, they had to just pick one and quickly move one. They would trade them around later. This was to facilitate the very long ASE lines — much longer than the line for cigarettes. These books filled many long lonely hours for soldiers.

There are many delightful tidbits – who would guess that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was the most popular ASE? And that hundreds soldiers wrote thank you letters to author Betty Smith (she answered every one). Like me, you may choke up to learn that when men had to jettison items from their packs to save weight, they never discarded their books?

Towards the end of the war and after, the US continued to distribute these books to both to servicemen and, later, to European civilians who were starved for reading material. The appendix lists just a fraction of the banned authors who books were banned and burned in German and German occupied countries during the war.

The other appendix of this book is so fascinating I may have to keep this book (only kidding, Mom) as it lists every ASE published in date order, by series (A-B-C etc.) and issued number. Classics, short stories, humor, essays, now-forgotten popular authors, many sports books and even a few science and mathematics books show up. Nothing condensed or dumbed-down. To read through this listing of titles is a wonderful glimpse into the reading and publishing tastes of the time. Not to mention, some of the ASE authors are the same as those on the banned book list.

When Books Went to War is an important cultural history; but it is also vastly readable, interesting, meticulously researched and well-written.

If you love books, are interested in World War II and want to remember a time when Americans (and government) worked together for a common goal, read this book.
See all my reviews at Bookbarmy.com ( )
  BookBarmy | Apr 13, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Molly Guptill Manningprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dunne, BernadetteNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sullivan, MichaelaCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For my husband, Christopher Manning
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"Were you ever so upset emotionally that you had to tell someone about it, to sit down and write it out?" a Marine asked in a letter to the author Betty Smith.
“Books are weapons in the war of ideas” - the slogan of the Council on Books in Wartime.
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Book description
Covers the Victory Book Campaign, 1942–1943, a civilian program for supplying reading material to the armed services men. Second section tells the story of The Council of Books in Wartime, which created the Armed Services Editions.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0544535022, Hardcover)

When America entered World War II in 1941, we faced an enemy that had banned and burned over 100 million books and caused fearful citizens to hide or destroy many more. Outraged librarians launched a campaign to send free books to American troops and gathered 20 million hardcover donations. In 1943, the War Department and the publishing industry stepped in with an extraordinary program: 120 million small, lightweight paperbacks, for troops to carry in their pockets and their rucksacks, in every theater of war.
Comprising 1,200 different titles of every imaginable type, these paperbacks were beloved by the troops and are still fondly remembered today. 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. When Books Went to War is an inspiring story for history buffs and book lovers alike.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:46 -0400)

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"When America entered World War II in 1941, [it] faced an enemy that had banned and burned over 100 million books and caused fearful citizens to hide or destroy many more. Outraged librarians launched a campaign to send free books to American troops and gathered 20 million hardcover donations. In 1943, the War Department and the publishing industry stepped in with an extraordinary program: 120 million small, lightweight paperbacks, for troops to carry in their pockets and their rucksacks, in every theater of war"--Amazon.com.

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