How books raised spirits during World War II.
In 1941, the American Army faced the challenge of training hastily convened troops and amassing basic supplies to wage an extensive war in Europe. Soon, the Army discovered another serious challenge: low morale. Far from home, cut off from family and friends, fearful and stressed, the new conscripts longed for distraction. “What the Army needed,” writes attorney Manning (The Myth of Ephraim Tutt: Arthur Train and His Great Literary Hoax, 2012) in this intriguing history, “was some form of recreation that was small, popular, and affordable. It needed books.” Financial straits made buying books impossible, so librarians volunteered to mount a book drive. In the first two years, the Victory Book Campaign received 6.6 million volumes, not all appropriate for young men. Knitting books and children’s literature, for example, were sent elsewhere or pulped. Despite complaints that hardcover books were too large and heavy to carry, books proved so popular that the Army decided to take over, establishing the Council on Books in Wartime. Its first project was publishing 50,000 copies each of 50 titles in small, lightweight paperback editions. A staff of readers made recommendations, and the council noted any that might “give aid and comfort to the enemy, conflict with the spirit of American democracy, or be offensive to any religious or racial groups, trades, or professions.” Despite these guidelines, more than 1,200 selections were sent to soldiers and Navy men, including novels (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a great favorite), mysteries, Westerns, adventure stories, biographies, poetry and a host of other genres. Manning includes a book list as an appendix. Many soldiers were so moved by what they read that they started a correspondence with authors; for some soldiers, the books were their first introduction to literature of any kind and inspired their enrollment in higher education, supported by the GI Bill, after the war.
A fresh perspective on the trials of war and the power of books.