Book Review: Molly Guptill Manning’s latest shows the power of paperback

Books relieved both boredom and stress for millions of American troops during World War II.
Chuck Twardy

Three and a half stars

When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II By Molly Guptill Manning, $25.

Forget about Katyusha rockets, the Sherman tank and the Atomic Bomb. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn won World War II. You might conclude that after reading Molly Guptill Manning’s When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II. Manning’s account of the American Library Association’s Victory Book Campaign, which gathered 18 million donated books, and the military’s Armed Services Editions, which printed and distributed 123 million paperbacks to service members, stresses that books relieved both boredom and stress for millions of American troops.

Manning also highlights the contrast between Nazi censorship and American freedom of thought—even opening the book with an account of the infamous 1933 Nazi book-burning in Berlin’s Bebelplatz. This distinction was a crucial lesson for a nation that resolutely opposed going to war until December 7, 1941, and mostly approved it after that date to punish Japan for attacking Pearl Harbor.

Lofty arguments were lost on the average soldier, though. It was hard to champion freedom when you’d had yours taken from you, replaced by a muddy foxhole and looming death. Manning cites instances of soldiers praising authors whose books had uplifted them—such as Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—but not as ideological weapons. “From books, soldiers extracted courage, hope, determination, a sense of selfhood, and other qualities to fill voids created by the war,” Manning writes.

The U.S. numbered 130 million people at the time, and books took up a greater share of national leisure than they do today. Also, at the beginning of the war, when the ALA launched a campaign for donated books to fill shelves at training-camp libraries, the hardback reigned. But soldiers valued traveling light, and it quickly became clear they needed smaller, lightweight books. The military’s solution, Armed Services Editions, could fit in a pocket and be read anywhere. They made paperbacks a staple of the book industry. They also made The Great Gatsby a classic. Manning notes that the 1925 Fitzgerald novel had been a flop until it became a popular ASE title 20 years later.

Manning’s tale is heartening for any book lover, but sometimes she labors to make books seem central to the fight. A long account of primitive conditions at training camps, for instance, ends with books being one of many things needed. Nonetheless, it’s clear that books made a difference, at home and at the front.

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