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When Books Went to War

By Melanie Moffett
In Bayou Pages
Feb 25th, 2015



As an avid bibliophile, I find it hard to believe there is anything better than a book about books. When Books Went To War by Molly Guptill Manning is a fascinating historical account of not only how World War II changed the history of book publication forever but how the Armed Service Editions (ASE) of popular texts served our soldiers in foxholes and hospitals, all while these brave men served our country.

On May 10, 1933, thousands of German students and spectators gathered at the Bebelplatz to burn a massive pyre of books. These books, considered “un-German” by the government, were destroyed in order to protect the “national movement of Nazi unity” that was sweeping the country. The same country that once gave the world brilliant philosophers and writers was now intent on changing the German culture to fit the ideals and dogmas of their ruler, Adolf Hitler. According to When Books Went to War, by 1938, the Nazis had banned over 4,000 titles and the complete works of over 500 authors, many of whom were Jewish, and sadly, as history tells, once the books were banned, the Nazis moved from books to people.

Because this event was widely publicized throughout Germany and, subsequently, the world, protests over the book burnings came from writers, editorial boards and Nobel Prize winners. However, even in 1940, only about 7 percent of Americans were in favor of declaring war on Germany. Despite the unpopularity of war, the United States government took actions to enlist, train and prepare men for what was looking like an inevitable conclusion. Training camps were hastily built and put up throughout the country, often times with inadequate weapons and supplies. With more men recruited than actual beds in barracks, the government quickly realized they needed to give the soldiers something to keep them from becoming demoralized. Their answer: books.

The Army Library Service (ALS) was a department created in 1921 and was responsible for the maintenance of over 200 libraries at Army posts in the United States; however, due to funding issues by the beginning of WWII, the now-defunct ASL only had outdated books and undesirable titles to give their soldiers. The War Department wanted to purchase books for its soldiers; their goal was one per every enlisted man, but they were also unable to keep up with the demand of books due to funding. So a new war of sorts began—one led by the scariest enemy known to Nazi book burners: the librarians of the United States.

The American Library Association hired Althea Warren, the head librarian from the Los Angeles Public Library, to head a nation-wide book drive in 1941. Warren thought big; she wanted to collect ten million books, and at the end of her four-month term as head of the campaign, over four million books had been donated. But this was not enough. The campaign, now led by Warren’s friend, John Connor, was put into overdrive, and by April of 1942, nine million books had been collected.

While libraries at bases could now be stocked, another issue arose. Soldiers in the field did not need to carry yet another item, such as a hard-back book, which was how the majority of books were published in the 1930s, so the next step was to provide a lightweight book that a soldier could easily carry in his pack. In 1942, representatives from several well-known publishing houses formed the Council on Books in Wartime. The council’s motto became “This war is a war of books…Books are our weapons.” These publishing houses were tasked for creating a new style of books suitable for mass production…except that they faced the small issue of the paper rationing during wartime. The US government, knowing how important keeping the morale of the soldiers up was, agreed to “provide nine hundred tons of paper per quarter for the production of Armed Services Editions” of books.

The ASEs were revolutionary. Publishers were able to publish popular genres and titles specifically for the soldiers. The ASE production of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith was just one of the titles that became a huge success among the soldiers, and as the soldiers demanded more books, the publishers rushed to supply their need. But as it always seems to go with books, someone is going to have a reason to protest their content. But this time, the person wanting to ban books came from no other place than the United States Congress.

When Books Went to War is a well-written, well-researched book not only about the important role books played during WWII, but it also makes a clear commentary about what happens when books are banned. Manning gives an interesting lesson and insight about a time in our country’s history when books went to war and helped preserve freedom.