cover image When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II

When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II

Molly Guptill Manning. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25 (288p) ISBN 978-0-544-53502-2

Supplying American soldiers with reading material has long been a modest priority, but nothing compares to the massive, WWII operation that sent over 140 million books to U.S. troops. Manning (The Myth of Ephraim Tutt), an attorney for the U.S. Court of Appeals, begins this delightful history of a little-known aspect of the war in 1940, with America scrambling to build an army from scratch. Officers responsible for morale noticed that post libraries showed "circulation rates so staggering that it was a wonder the print had not been wiped clean from the pages." Grassroots campaigns produced an avalanche of donations, mostly hardcovers, appropriate for libraries but hopelessly bulky for a frontline soldier. In 1942, publishers put their heads together and Manning delivers an engrossing story of the result: a compact paperback designed to fit into a soldier's pocket. This legendary Armed Services Edition became "the most significant project in publishing history." Over 1,300 titles poured overseas to an enthusiastic reception, and "there was a book for every taste, whether a man preferred Sad Sack comics or Plato." The usual Congressional diehards aside, censorship was minimal. Manning's entertaining account will have readers nostalgic for that seemingly distant era when books were high priority. (Dec.)