It’s no secret that I am a book lover–just take a minute to glance around at some of the posts on the blog. As a dedicated bibliophile, I’m always looking for books about books–books that tell me more about why we love to read and why reading matters.
When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning is that type of book. If you love books or you love reading about military history, this book is for you. This nonfiction book tells the story of how books became one of America’s most important weapons during WWII.
Hitler’s regime was responsible for the destruction of millions of books that didn’t line up with the Nazi party’s views. Massive book burnings were held in Berlin to destroy countless titles. All told, over 100 million books were destroyed in WWII–from book burnings to books destroyed in bombings. More than anything, this was a war of ideas–censorship in Germany only further proved the danger of the Nazi regime, and early on in the war Americans decided that the only way to win a war of ideas was through books.
The first iteration of this was the Victory Book Campaign, a massive book drive that encouraged Americans to donate books to the troops. While the VBC was a huge success, many of the books that were donated were hardcovers or books that wouldn’t necessarily interest the men and women serving overseas.
Soon, the desire for books led to the foundation of the Council on Books in Wartime. Ultimately, the Council began to produce special Armed Services Editions (ASEs) of books to ship directly to the troops.
Each printing included multiple titles from an eclectic range of genres, and the books were an instant hit. The soldiers craved them, traded them and even bribed each other for them.
The books did exactly what they were supposed to: they relieved boredom, elevated spirits, incited laughter, renewed hope, and provided an escape.
Despite paper rationing and limited funds, the Council was able to publish an astonishing amount of titles–just check out this list of all of the books they published!
When Books Went to War describes in great detail just how important these ASEs were to the men on the front lines. In fact, the Army and Navy considered these books so important that they repeatedly asked the Council to print more titles. When there seemed to be a surplus of books…
Some council members worried that this buildup of books indicated a lack of interest in the ASEs. It was a great relief when the council later learned that the imminent invasion of Normandy was the explanation, and that the Army had actually considered books so important to morale that they had earmarked almost a million for the men boarding transports (97).
As the war drew to a close, the Council didn’t stop; they produced special Overseas Editions of books to help give the gift of reading back to Europeans who had lost their literature during the course of the war. The ASEs also helped men serving overseas learn to love reading; their wartime reading directly contributed to the success of the GI Bill after the war was over.
I really enjoyed this book–it’s very readable nonfiction, and the chapters go by quickly. For me, the most interesting part was reading the men’s letters to their favorite authors. One of the most popular ASEs was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is one of my favorites–and it’s another book that talks about the value of reading. Another popular ASE was The Great Gatsby, which was actually a flop when it was published in 1925. If you read Gatsby in high school, it’s probably because of the Council on Books in Wartime.
By the end of WWII, the VBC had collected 18 million books, and the Council was able to print 123 million ASEs. How’s that for a victory in a war of ideas?