If you get the chance to read this extraordinary book, “When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win WWII” does not disappoint. Through in-depth research and entertaining storytelling, Author Molly Guptill Manning weaves together a gem about the men who fought for the freedom of ideas and speech and the librarians, publishers and authors who armed them with their arsenal of weapons: books.
From the publisher:
“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…”
In all there were 123 million Armed Services Editions’ books sent to soldiers during WWII. The book program served a two-pronged approach: to arm soldiers with ideas of freedom that Adolf Hitler was intent on destroying, while at the same time giving them the comfort of a book from home. Later, the men recounted how they relied on the books to “escape” the war if only for a few minutes at a time.
By the end of the war, America had the most well-read military in history that knew the likes of Plato, Shakespeare and Dickens. Further, because of their broad reading education, those who went on to college on the GI Bill tended to outscore their traditional student counterparts. Importantly, through the program, more books were given to American soldiers than all of the books destroyed by Hitler in Europe.
Not only is “When Books Went to War” a great read about WWII history, it’s a good reminder of the true value of books for a flourishing democracy built on the ideals of knowledge, expression and ideas.