Librarians Fortify The Front Line

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Books we love, war not so much. The story told in this book is about books, about librarians, publishers and common folk who believe in books. And who believe that books are important for fortifying people who need heroic capacities.

In an interview with the author, we see publishers and their town square counterparts, librarians, in a light we had not been aware of, showing their contribution to community at a critical moment in history:

…Over the next few years, millions of Americans would leave home to fight in Europe and the Pacific. They had few comforts and little in the way of escape or entertainment — at least not until American publishers got involved.

A soldier reads an Armed Services Edition in monsoon conditions during World War II. Australian War Memorial/Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

A soldier reads an Armed Services Edition in monsoon conditions during World War II. Australian War Memorial/Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

“During World War II, American publishers wanted to support the troops,” author Molly Guptill Manning tells NPR’s Renee Montagne. “And so they decided that the best they could do was print miniature paperback books that were small enough that they could fit in a pocket so the men could carry these books with them anywhere.”

Guptill Manning’s new book, When Books Went to War, is a history of these paperbacks, known as Armed Services Editions. They included all sorts of literature — from Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare to mysteries and Westerns — and were the culmination of earlier efforts on the part of American librarians to get usedbooks to servicemen with help from book drives. Well-intentioned though they were, the results of these book drives were mixed, turning up titles like How to Knit and Theology in 1870. So the focus switched to designing and printing books that soldiers actually wanted to read — no easy task since these Armed Services Editions had to be battlefield ready.

“They’re about the size of a smartphone, and they were tucked into the pockets of uniforms,” Guptill Manning explains. “The paper that they were printed was about the strength of newsprint. And so it was believed that each book would probably withstand about six readings before it would start to fall into pieces.”

But these books were in high demand, and servicemen were known to push their limits. “There are actually reports of some books having waiting lists of 30 guys.”

Interview Highlights

On one of the most popular Armed Services Edition titles, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

This book made them think of home. Men who never set foot in Brooklyn wrote to Betty Smith … to say that they felt like they were reading about their hometown.

Read or listen to the whole interview here.

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