George Clooney gave Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter’s The Monuments Men (2009) the Hollywood treatment; will anyone do the same for this survey of librarians and scholars and their activities with print materials during World War II?
Unlike the Monuments Men, Peiss’ (American History/Univ. of Pennsylvania; Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style, 2011, etc.) subjects did not operate under the aegis of one organization or agency and had more diffuse charges, ranging from procuring books and periodicals from Europe for intelligence analysis during the war and later gathering enemy documents and books of all kinds as the Allies swept across Europe, to figuring out what to do with Nazi literature and caches of Jewish books both holy and secular after it. Perhaps as a result of this attempt to gather disparate figures and missions together under the rubric of “information hunters,” the author rarely goes deep, instead delivering a reasonably well-written but nevertheless unfocused account of wartime book-related activities. Some of the figures—most prominently the author’s uncle, Reuben Peiss, a librarian-turned-agent in Lisbon—recur, but far too many appear for a few pages and are never revisited. Though Peiss makes copious use of her subjects’ letters, few of them emerge as distinct enough characters to carry their parts of the narrative. The dizzying occurrence of initialisms—R&A, IDC, CIOS, SHAEF, MFAA, LCM, etc.—serves to further distance readers from the events described. Some individual portions are fascinating. The discussion of postwar censorship’s role in the denazification of Germany has (sadly unacknowledged) echoes in today’s conversations about literature and culture, and Peiss movingly explores the dilemma of how to make restitution to a nearly annihilated people. Overall, however, the author shows herself to be a diligent historian but a poor storyteller.
Unlikely to become another George Clooney vehicle.