Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How Books Helped Win WWII: The American Services Editions

When Books Went To War: The Stories That Helped us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning concerns the 1,200 paperback book titles printed by the War Department for distribution to American troops through the American Services Editions (ASE). The impact of this program was enormous. It finessed a new format for books that increased sales; by 1952 paperback sales exploded and by 1959 outpaced sales of hardbound books. Books previously ignored or forgotten were propelled into best-sellers. People who had never read a book for pleasure became lifetime readers and were inspired to take advantage of the GI Bill's college education. In 1947-48 half of college students were veterans.

What book-loving reader could resist a book about how books became more valued than chocolate by soldiers? An Army medical officer contended that the ASE were the greatest "improvement in Army technique since the Battle of the Marne."

The author places the conception and growth of the program against a concise description of the historical context and progress of the war. Hitler's massive book burnings purged Germany of books which did not support his policies and beliefs. WWII was a "war of ideas" and the dissemination of books was a proper response.

What started out as a book drive turned into a special format publishing program that distributed thousands of books. Contemporary fiction was in most demand. Authors who especially appealed to the men included Katherine Anne Porter's stories and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.  As was pointed out in Why We Read, The Great Gatsby was 'rediscovered' through it's inclusion as an ASE book. Books that recalled to mind their lives back home, made them laugh, or helped them deal with the deep emotional responses to their situation were valued.

Studies dating to WWI had shown that books had a "therapeutic" quality, enabling people to understand the difficulties and experiences they had experienced. Recent studies have concluded that reading literature, as opposed to genre fiction or non-fiction, increases one's empathy and emotional intelligence.

The material in the book is well researched. A list of the 1,200 books and their publication dates is included. My son (writer of the blog Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased) had already told me about this, which motivated me to request this book when I saw it on NetGalley. I very much enjoyed this book--it is a "feel good" ride for book lovers! Books save the world!

I had picked up a copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn a few years ago, not having read it since I was a teenager. After reading how it was much in demand among the troops I decided to put it on my to be read shelf.

When Books Went To War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II
Molly Guptill Manning
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN 9780544535022
Publication date: December 2, 2014

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