What they couldn’t foresee was a mass audience swollen by the millions of veterans who’d acquired the reading habit overseas, thanks to the Armed Services Editions of popular paperbacks distributed free to the troops. After the war, many of them would go to college on the GI Bill, as Gorey and O’Hara had. Vets made up a sizable part of the new book-hungry audience that gobbled up 2,862,792 copies of Pocket’s Five Great Tragedies by Shakespeare the year it was published.
The above was essentially a throwaway detail in Born to Be Posthumous, Mark Dery’s biography of Edward Gorey, which I read at the beginning of the year, included to add context and texture to Gorey’s post-military service life. It stuck with me, though, mostly because it felt like something I should have come across before, given my interests. I highlighted the passage, with the intention of looking more into it later.
As it happened, a couple of weeks later Literary Hub published an article about the Armed Services Editions. I read it with interest, thinking what a great coincidence it was that an article about something I just recently learned would show up so soon after my learning about it. My life is riddled with these serendipitous happenstances, though, (enough that I have my own name for them: coincidencias cósmicas — my cosmic coincidences), and whenever I stumble upon one, I’ve learned to give it more of my attention. The piece goes on to cite When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning, and I figured this was the universe’s way of telling me to read it. The fact that I also picked this up at a time where book bannings are rampant all across the United States was yet another cosmic layer on top of it all. (I don’t believe in destiny, but I believe in confluence.)
War is not a subject I tend to want to read much about, not unless it’s something the caliber of Band of Brothers or Maus. But When Books Went to War proved to be a powerful and poignant story, with far more disquieting relevance than one would initially expect. In the Western world especially, we tend to view moments like the Second World War as these distant events, when in reality that are often so terrifyingly recent — a paragraph or two above us in the grand narrative of history. We also have the tendency to view the past as Things That Happened to Other People. It’s not our problem anymore. We don’t have to worry about these things any longer. This lack of concern and awareness is the privilege of the complacent and ignorant, and why we constantly repeat the mistakes of the long ago. We did not learn, and so we continue to err.
When Books Went to War is the account of a very specific, seemingly trivial endeavor of U.S. military history. About a group of people who, sensing the despair and general lack of morale in those sent to fight a relentless ideologue of an enemy, understood the need and the importance for emotional escape and release. They developed organizations with the purpose of sending books — of sending stories — to the troops, fighting in lands where so many of those books were now forbidden.
A small matter in the grand scheme of things, but one that was endlessly, massively appreciated by its recipients. Guptill Manning fills her book to the brim with letters and accounts of appreciation from countless soldiers. About how this book or this story or this writer saved them from anguish amidst a bleak situation. “I don’t think I would have been able to sleep this night,” wrote a Marine to author Betty Smith, “unless I bared my heart to the person who caused it to live again.” Hospitalized with malaria, in a deep depression caused by the trauma of war, he picked up a copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn on a whim, and it made him feel human again. An invaluable feeling to those in service who often felt like they were treated as no more than cannon fodder.
Much of the book focuses on the many innovations the publishing industry developed as they produced these books during wartime, having to meet special, intensely specific and rigorous requirements. It’s fascinating to read about, to be sure, but the emotional crux of Guptill Manning’s books lies with the moving reactions of the readers of these cleverly constructed books, as well as the passionate efforts of the people who made them possible. Myriads of bureaucratic hurdles had to be jumped through; endless delicate political issues had to be finessed. People who ought to have known better sought to restrict and censor the types of books being sent out, worrying that some of their content would encourage dissent and discord — a motion that was fervently fought against. Pushing through all the nonsense and obstacles was the sheer conviction that getting books into the hands of these soldiers was not only important for their morale, but vital in the war effort as a whole. In a conflict where the idea of free speech was at its very center, against an enemy that concerned itself with the burning and banishment of books, meant that books and the written word were now, quite literally, weapons of war.
It was a bittersweet thing to read about a United States of America who fought and felt so passionately for books and the rights they represented, especially considering the current climate, where so many Americans who believe themselves to be patriots ban books with abandon, who are, indeed, eager and ecstatic to do so. They would do well to read the words of the soldiers so revered in American culture, of people who not only fought against the suppression and eradication of ideas, but actively rejoiced in the right to read whatever they damned well pleased.
Books were intertwined with the values at stake in the war, and Americans would not tolerate any restriction on their reading materials.
Ultimately, I choose to take solace, encouragement, and inspiration in reading about those who have actually fought for democracy and freedom and the written word. When Books Went to War is a celebration of these ideals, and it makes for an uplifting read.
When there were more men than ASEs, it was “not unusual for a man to tear off the portion of a book he had finished to give to the next man who doesn’t have a book to read saying — ‘I’ll save my pages for you.’”