When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II

by Molly Guptill Manning

Hardcover, 2014




Houghton Mifflin (2014), 288 pages


History. Military. Nonfiction. HTML: 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..… (more)


½ (199 ratings; 3.9)

Media reviews

'“When Books Went to War” is at its most compelling when it lets the ASE program speak for itself, through dramatic anecdotes or quotes from servicemen. Otherwise, as a history of the program, it’s comprehensive but flat.' 'Manning’s book, flawed as it may be, fills a void.'
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"Manning's entertaining account will have readers nostalgic for that seemingly distant era when books were high priority."
"A fresh perspective on the trials of war and the power of books."

User reviews

LibraryThing member lindapanzo
It is estimated that 100 million books were destroyed during World War 2, both as a part of war, bombings and the like, and via Nazi book burnings (called bibliocausts here). Amazingly, however, more than 123 million Armed Services Editions (ASEs) were distributed to American GIs during the war,
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with the Victory Book Campaign adding an additional 18 million volumes to the soliders.

This terrific, highly readable book addresses the book burnings, the censorship, and other lows, but focuses on the incredible effort to bring books to the troops, wherever they might be, and the short-term and long-term impact these books had on the soldiers and sailors who received these books.

The books themselves were quiet interesting, wider than they were tall, with two columns of print, and paper covers. In fact, it was said that, a soldier or sailor was out of uniform unless he had a book in his pocket.

These books were devoured. Not just the low-brow type of books either. The program included a wide range of books in every category, including classics. Books banned in Boston did seem to be among the most widely-sought after ASEs, not surprisingly.

Besides the program itself, the program had a number of interesting impacts. Some old favorite books were brought back from oblivion by the program. Quite a number of GIs wrote to thank authors, sometimes in heartbreaking fashion, and established regular correspondence with these authors.

I've read quite a bit about World War 2 and the Armed Services Edition angle is one that I'd never heard of before. An absolutely fascinating, yet quick, read.

This is a must-read for anyone who loves books and loves reading about the power of books. Highly, highly recommended!! Probably my favorite book of the past few years.

I read the book on my Kindle but will likely also buy a hardcover copy for my personal library, something I never do when I already own the Kindle book. Beyond that, I would love to get my hands on an ASE (there are plenty on eBay) and experience one for myself.
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LibraryThing member Bookish59
When someone asks why you’re always reading, or a co-worker says (s)he doesn’t have enough time to read (while on her way to Happy Hour, or hurrying home to watch Housewives of Somewhere or Other), or a pompous academic insists libraries cease purchasing fiction titles because they are
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unimportant give ‘em this book.

The 1933 book burning “bibliocaust” in Germany of approximately 565 banned titles mostly by Jewish writers shocked the world. (Later many more titles would be added to the list of banned books.) The world knew Germany had set the “bar” high in the fields of science, engineering, math, music, art, medicine, literature, etc. and could not comprehend this horror. The world would learn that this was just the beginning of Hitler’s “total war,” the annihilation of not only human life but of each country’s culture, religion, and traditions. Only those books, movies, music and educational materials supporting and praising Germany, and Aryan superiority would be permitted. Fortunately some European librarians and curators had a small window of time to proactively hide their collections of banned titles.

In the US, the American Library Association (ALA) didn’t wait for Hitler to begin manipulating American minds. It encouraged Americans to read MORE to spread our country’s founding and ongoing beliefs and convictions in democracy and freedom. These were worth defending.

In September 1940 young American men were required to register for military service. The US was not prepared militarily: training bases needed to be built, weapons, equipment, uniforms and the many items required by a strong army and navy needed to be manufactured. The first groups of conscripted men were expected to create some of this infrastructure while living in cold or hot, dirty, bare-boned environments. The War Department acknowledged that the men were discouraged, uncomfortable and unhappy; and knew they had to do something to improve morale.

The ALA’s National Defense Book Campaign, headed by Althea Warren promoted a national book drive to collect books to send to the men. The concept behind the drive was simple and brilliant. The men needed relief from the fear, pain, discomfort and boredom characteristic of military life and war. Books provided comfort, distraction, and entertainment, reducing physical and mental stress and anxiety, AND proved that Americans back home cared. The drive was a phenomenal success and delivered millions of books to American military bases and ships. But criticism from the Navy’s Head Librarian Isabel Dubois that the books were too large and heavy, and due to negative articles in the Sun and Tribune that many titles were inappropriate, funding for the Campaign fizzled. Magazines and periodicals were shipped instead.

In March 1942 American publishers met forming the Council on Books in Wartime to discuss the importance and usefulness of books to the country. They saw promoting books to all citizens as the best response to Germany’s book burnings and Nazi aggression. In 1943, the Armed Services Editions (ASE) was created: small, light paperbacks using less paper and very portable. Soldiers loved them, and wrote letters of gratitude to the Council and many of their favorite authors describing just how much they treasured the books for helping them through challenging and awful conditions. The books reminded them of home, removed them from their physical discomfort or constant sounds of bombs and gunfire, provided distraction, and aided them in healing when wounded.

As the war wound down, the US government began preparing for demobilization. They were concerned with returning soldiers adapting to home life. Would they be able to find jobs? ASE textbooks and books about career options were published, shipped and read. On June 22, 1944 the GI Bill was signed into law, providing disability and unemployment compensation, counseling, low–interest housing loans, and a college education or vocational training to soldiers. Librarians helped them understand the bill and their options. 7.8 million soldiers pursued college education or vocational training and many were outstanding students!

When Books Went to War is now a favorite of mine and will remain in my library. It is the true story of good against evil, of knowledge against ignorance, of the US standing steadfastly behind the military to help it serve and defend our democracy and liberty. I am incredibly proud of the organizations and individuals who focused their efforts on the minds and hearts of the men who were asked to sacrifice so much for us. The books they received made a huge difference to these men, creating a new generation of readers, students and thinkers, and influencing career decisions they may not have made without access to books. No surprise that after the war, book sales increased!

We should all be proud of those wonderful, decent, hard-working military men who suffered, too many of them dying, fighting to protect us and proving that the free flow of ideas and thoughts could not be tyrannized, and books could not be killed.

Read this book; it is an absolute gem!
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LibraryThing member cathyskye
If you love books, you are going to love When Books Went to War. I knew absolutely nothing about Armed Services Editions before I picked up this book, and once I finished it, I knew that one day I would have to have one of these extraordinary books in my personal library-- and not just because my
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grandfather fought in the Pacific during World War II.

I was not prepared for the emotional power this book held for me. As I read about a government that tried to plan for all eventualities, I was inspired. Books were a major source of entertainment and enlightenment for soldiers, and much thought was put into the design of the books. Would they fit in a soldier's pockets? Would they fit into rucksacks? How well would they hold up to all sorts of wear and weather? What did the soldiers want to read? What was going to happen when all these soldiers came home? What sorts of jobs could they qualify for? The titles ran the gamut-- from jobs training to Westerns to steamy novels to classics-- and soldiers couldn't get enough.

Publishers had to run to get more titles and many more copies ready to send out. Money was tight, and there was a paper shortage. Publishers cut where they could, including royalties to authors whose books were being printed. During the last print runs of these ASEs, authors were only earning one penny per copy-- and most waived their royalties altogether. The war and the men who were fighting it were of the utmost importance. Many of those fighting soldiers had never had a chance for a decent education. They devoured the ASEs like they were starving. Once the government adjusted the age limitations on the G.I. Bill, thousands upon thousands of these soldiers came home and went on to earn college educations.

Manning pulls no punches in When Books Went to War. As loathsome as what the Nazis were doing in Europe, she does mention existing problems (such as racism) in the U.S. and how these problems affected soldiers, but that is not the focus of this book, and she made a wise decision to avoid that quagmire. She chose to keep the focus on the power and magic of the printed word.

As inspiring as what the government and the publishing industry did, the real, sometimes gut-wrenching, power of When Books Went to War lies in actual heartfelt letters written by soldiers to the authors of the books they'd read, letters that almost every author answered (much to the shock and delight of the soldiers). If I have any complaint at all about this book, it's that Manning didn't include enough of those letters. I would love to read many, many more of them. As it is, Molly Guptill Manning's book is probably the very best book I've read all year. Even though I don't reread books as a rule, I could pick this one up and savor it all over again. I loved it.
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LibraryThing member mysterymax
This is a very comprehensive story about a little thought of aspect of WWII - the power of books to change how people think and feel. Beginning with the German's determination to burn all books that did not reflect the "German" ideals it goes on to show how Hitler used books and written propaganda
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to undermine countries moral before he invaded them. It deals with the effort of the US to both provide books for troops in dire need of something to relax with and to keep them in touch with the ideals of what they were fighting for. From the book drives run by librarians and the American Library Association to the final solution of printing millions of small paper books (ASEs) the book follows both the efforts to get books into the hands of the troops and the tremendous effect that the books had on them.

I have lindapanzo to thank for calling this book to our attention. I agree with her that it is a book I want to own. I recommend it for everyone who loves reading about how books can change people, for anyone connect with a library, and anyone interested in history. It is an amazing story and very well written.
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LibraryThing member 2wonderY
This recounts the US effort to put reading material into the hands of their servicemen in WW2, and what the effect was on morale and the war in general. I so much liked this book that I started a thread to talk about it and added more research.
LibraryThing member VGAHarris
Another of the great World War II stories that often gets overlooked in the grand sweep of campaign and diplomatic narratives. An excellent analysis of how the U.S. government, librarians, and the publishing industry coordinated the program to supply our troops with books. Reading materials were
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vital to the soldiers' morale as there was often significant downtime between combat engagements. An interesting sub-plot is the issue of censorship. Some content for those soldiers was censored which struck many as hypocritical as the reason for fighting the war was to liberate people from totalitarian governments that built their regimes on propaganda and censorship. Highly recommended for both World War II aficionados and the general reader who wants an interesting glimpse of one of the war's sidebar stories.
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LibraryThing member Stbalbach
I like books. I like books about WWII. And here is a book about books in WWII. What's not to like? It's a short book, but full of interesting things. It's mostly about the Armed Services Editions (ASE) which were small portable paperbacks distributed in the millions to American GIs. It was the
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first introduction of the mass market paperback, a market which mostly didn't exist before the war when publishers only sold heavy hardcovers. We tend to think of GIs on the front as gritty and tough guys, I suppose they were, but the book they were most commonly reading was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. WWII was in many ways literary in its scope and drama, and likewise the people fighting it were reading literature as they fought. It's hard to imagine this sort of golden age of literature in war happening again, there are too many competing distractions today, but for a time literature was the king of the battlefield.
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LibraryThing member Kellswitch
A fascinating look at a little remembered program from W.W. II to provide soldiers with books to read and how important those books were to the moral and emotional support of our troops.

Before reading this book I had some vague knowledge that W.W. II helped create our modern market for paperback
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books but I had no idea how or why. I found the history of the ASE's and what it took to create, get the books to the soldiers and keep the program running fascinating and uplifting. I especially enjoyed the part where the Counsel on Books in Wartime fought back against ugly and blatant censorship. As someone who deeply values and loves reading I also found it very moving just how important reading was to the men fighting such a horrible war and the lasting effects having access to those books had on them.

I found the writing style very easy and accessible and found myself getting more emotional reading some sections then I had expected and I really appreciated the reinforcement of the value of words and reading.
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LibraryThing member muddyboy
I teach history at a local junior college and I had no idea there was a program during WW 2 to send ten million books to soldiers across the globe both to keep up morale but also in response to the book burnings that occurred in NAZI controlled areas. In other words, in addition to everything else
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we were fighting for we were also fighting for freedom of thought. This program was embraced both at home and abroad with countless soldiers that read nothing much but newspapers coming back from the service avid readers. I wish my college students read with this kind of zeal.
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LibraryThing member Itzey
As a retired librarian, I was immediately attracted to this book. Failing to get an advanced copy, I was so intrigued by the subject I immediately placed an order and bought the book.

It was a good as I thought it would be. In the short 200 pages of this book I felt like I had traveled with the
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troops in WWII. The book also showed what strength America can have despite our own internal divisions. If only every American today could read this book and realize that we have more that unites us than divides us. If only.
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LibraryThing member simchaboston
Engaging history of the programs that furnished millions of books for the U.S. military during World War II. I had no idea about either the Volunteer Book Drive, which solicited donations from the public for the soldiers and sailors in training, or of the subsequent initiative that produced
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specially formatted paperbacks to meet the needs of troops in the field (and, in a grander way, to counteract the Nazis' attempt to destroy books, ideas and the people who authored them). Manning explains each program and its goals fairly well, though she does repeat herself too much when discussing the psychological benefits of reading. The best parts are the various excerpts from letters sent to writers (most notably Betty Smith, of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn") by military personnel, who eloquently describe how these stories renewed their hopes and distracted them from the terror of war.
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LibraryThing member etxgardener
I hear the author of this book talking about it on NPR and immediately wanted to read it. In the run up to World War II, the Nazis famously banned authors (mostly Jewish)as well as controversial topics and burned more than 100 million books. Librarians in the United States were outraged and
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launched a campaign to provide free books to members of the US armed forces, and received donations of more than 20 million hardcover books by 1943.

Unfortunately, there were problems with this volunteer effort. Hardcover books were bulky and hard for the military to carry with them as they were deployed overseas. There also was no quality control on the subject matter of donated books, many of which were of no interest to their intended audience.

In 1943 the War Department, in conjunction with the publishing industry stepped in to provide paperback books that could conveniently fit into a soldier's pocket. By the end of the war, 120 million copies of 1200 titles had been distributed to US troops. The books were read everywhere - waiting to land on the beaches of Normandy, in foxholes in the midst of battles and during the long periods of waiting for something to happen. The list of titles (printed in the back of the book) shows an astonishing range of subject matter - everything from Plato to pulp fiction was provided for the troops.

This book was a fast & interesting read about a little known piece of history.
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LibraryThing member hadden
Nice, readable story of the need to supply American armed forces with reading materials during World War II. The description of the problem, the description of the process, and the evaluation of the solutions are well represented. A nice footnote to World War II stories.
LibraryThing member Sullywriter
A fascinating look at the efforts to provide books to American sailors and soldiers serving overseas during World War II, which led to the publication of American Service Editions which were distributed in the millions throughout the European and Pacific theaters. Manning discusses how the ASE's
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transformed paperback publishing in the U.S. following the war, and how the books were the first introduction to literature of any kind for many GIs and inspired their enrollment in higher education, supported by the GI Bill, after the war. An engrossing, inspiring story about the power of books and reading.
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LibraryThing member UnderMyAppleTree
During World War II millions of books were distributed to soldiers during a little known part of history that is brought to life in When Books Went to War.

Initially libraries, publishers, and the public banded together to collect books in a nationwide Victory Book Campaign, but it soon became
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apparent that it wasn’t working as well as they would like. Most of the books were hardcover and many were inappropriate cast-offs, such as knitting or children’s books, which needed to be sorted and disposed of. But many books did make it to the soldiers who enjoyed the reading material and wanted even more titles.

The book program was so popular that the Army created the Council on Books in Wartime to take over the task of getting appropriate books to soldiers. The Army, along with publishers, devised a lightweight, portable book specific for shipment overseas – the Armed Services Edition, or ASE.

I knew there was a book program during WWII, but I had no idea of its extent and influence. The paperbacks we have today owe their existence to the need to reduce the bulk and weight of the books. Previously books were mostly hardcovers with Penguin and Pocket Books being the only paperback labels. The Great Gatsby was rescued from obscurity to become the classic it is today thanks to ASEs.

Mixed in with the story of the books is an account of America’s involvement in the war and the challenges facing soldiers sent far from home, away from their family and friends. Not only do we learn how the army was able to get millions of books to the soldiers, but also what the books meant to them, and how many became lifelong readers because of these books. Towards the end of the war more non-fiction was included, and this often inspired them to choose a career and attend college on the GI bill.

I learned a lot from this book – not because I don’t read history, but because I had not previously come across this information. It’s all here in an interesting and very readable style. A short but thoroughly researched book, this is the perfect read for history buffs, or anyone who loves books.

Audio production: This is an easy listen and a good choice for new listeners. Bernadette Dunne narrates with a pleasant voice, adding just the right amount of emotion and emphasis. At times serious and at other times light, she keeps the listener engaged.
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LibraryThing member JanaRose1
This book recounts the efforts of librarians, governmental agencies and individuals to ensure that our soldiers had books to read during WWII. Although I thought the book was very repetitive, it also taught me a great deal. Overall, good for informational purposes.
LibraryThing member porch_reader
Books played a large part in World War II. When books were burned in Nazi Germany to squelch ideas that were counter to Nazi propaganda, it became clear that ideas could be used as a weapon in the war. Providing reading material to American troops became an important part of the war effort, and
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Armed Services Editions were developed to provide lightweight reading material that could be carried in a pocket. The story of how these books were conceptualized and delivered around the world is a fascinating one.
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LibraryThing member ecataldi
A quick, albeit repetitive, book highlighting the importance of books in wartime, specifically America's use of books during WWII. Publishers printed millions of paperback books to send over to American troops and they proved popular beyond belief. Soldiers fought and hoarded them, it was their
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only entertainment and reprieve from the hellish war they were fighting in. Many soldiers wrote authors praising them and thanking them for helping get them through war. It was really interesting to learn about librarians war and crusade for books as well as the military response. Enlightening and just goes to show how important books really are.
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LibraryThing member BookConcierge
While Nazis were burning books in Europe, Americans were trying to get more books distributed to the men fighting in the war. Their first efforts were a massive book drive, collecting about 10 million books to send to various training camps and overseas bases to support military libraries. But the
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hardcover books that were donated were too heavy for soldiers to carry into combat. So an unprecedented collaboration was born, including publishers, librarians and the military, and the Armed Service Edition (ASE) was launched.

The ASEs were printed on thinner paper with smaller type, and small enough to fit in a pocket. Soldiers and sailors were eager for this reading material and many wrote letters of thanks to authors, publishers and the council who ran the program.

Manning does a wonderful job of including the history of the times and the challenges faced by the Council, including efforts to censor the books that would be included. I was completely fascinated and engaged from beginning to end. This was an episode of our history about which I had never heard. How I wish I had read this book when my father was still alive, so I could ask him about it; he spent 33 months in the Pacific, making landings from New Guinea to the Philippines and eventually helping with the clean-up in Hiroshima. He hardly ever talked about his experiences, and I know so little about what he went through.
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LibraryThing member bemislibrary
War is deadly but here are periods where it can be bone weary boring. It is during these periods that paperback books from all genres are as efficient weapon as a machine gun. Author Manning recalls the role books and reading played in World War II. She covers some of the challenges publishers
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faced during paper shortages and innovated ways they than the public cooperated to get reading materials into the hand of military personnel. The appendixes on banned books and the Armed Services Edition provide both the historical context and reading list. Endnotes are also provided for each chapter.
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LibraryThing member MHanover10
As a book lover I found this book very interesting. Plus I'm fascinated with anything to do with World War II. It's a good audiobook, the narrator does a good job.
LibraryThing member LynnB
I think most book lovers and avid readers would enjoy this short book on the importance of books in the Second World War. Special American Service Editions of books were printed and shipped by the tens of thousands to American soldiers all over the world. The books were deliberately made small and
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bound with staples rather than glue so that they would be easy to carry and able to survive the rough environment soldiers lived in. The books included modern and classical fiction, westerns, poetry, biographies, other nonfiction -- a little of everything.

The author tells several stories of letters written by soldiers to authors --- I would have liked even more of these. It is interesting to see which books were popular. She also tells about how politicians tried to censor some books and about decisions to send titles that had been banned in some cities.

The book is a testament to the power of reading -- how it helped soldiers cope during war time and how it inspired many of them to continue their education after returning home. The contrast between Nazis burning millions of books and Americans shipping equal numbers to soldiers reminds us that words and ideas are powerful weapons.
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LibraryThing member niquetteb
The author put more information into WWII history than I cared for. I really just wanted to read about the books themselves and the impact they had on soldiers.
LibraryThing member TimBazzett
I'm a sucker for a book about books, and always on the lookout for another good WWII book too. So Molly Guptill Manning's WHEN BOOKS WENT TO WAR (2014) has been on my radar for several years now. But reading the book, finally, was a rather disappointing snooze. The writing is workmanlike enough,
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and some research is evident, but it just wasn't all that interesting. Kinda like a dull oveview history of the war years, plus how much the troops needed reading material. EXCEPT for the redeeming Appendix B, which offered a complete listing of all of the Armed Services Editions books printed during the war (and a couple post-war years too, for the Occupation troops). That part was fun to read, like walking through a lovingly preserved library of my early life. Books by Edna Ferber, Mari Sandoz, Eric Knight, Mary O'Hara, Ring Lardner, Robert Frost, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, John O'Hara, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Jack London, Hemingway and on and on. Books I'd first discovered in high school and at our local library. Manning singled out a few books that were especially popular with the troops, most notably - and surprisingly - Betty Smith's A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, and CHICKEN EVERY SUNDAY by Rosemary Taylor, as well as the then controversial FOREVER AMBER and STRANGE FRUIT. There were westerns by Max Brand, Zane Grey, Clarence Mulford (Hopalong Cassidy) and Ernest Haycox. History and historical fiction, sci-fi, biographies and memoirs etc. I mean there was plenty of everything in these little pocket-size tomes, something for everyone. I'm still mulling my way through these titles, remembering what I read so many years ago, and making little lists of my own of old books I never read. So that's where I am. The text of the book is 'just okay,' but Appendix B is terrific.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER
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LibraryThing member Castlelass
This book describes how the US ended up supplying small, lightweight paperbacks, called Armed Services Editions, to soldiers during WWII. It covers the Nazi book burnings, public drive to gather books, the formation of the Council for on Books in Wartime, and the selection of volumes. It dives
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deeply into a small part of history of WWII that made a big impact on the lives of the American soldiers. It is an example of a successful effort during wartime, which satisfied a need for reading materials to fill the massive amounts of downtime between conflicts. It contains anecdotes and letters from soldiers, authors, and publishers.

The variety of books is impressive (and a full list of titles is provided in the Appendix). They provided escape, entertainment, and education, and were well-loved by the recipients. Many people discovered the joys of reading that lasted well beyond the end of the war. It also relates the impact on American society, with educational opportunities becoming more widespread. It provides a wonderful example of how books can provide comfort during stressful times. Bibliophiles and history buffs will enjoy this one.
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288 p.; 8.25 inches


0544535022 / 9780544535022
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