When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II, by Molly Guptill Manning, is the first non-fiction book I have reviewed for Voraciously. As such, the style and format will be a bit different. This particular novel had no spoilers (unless you somehow didn’t realize that WWII happened), so I’ll just jump right in.
In When Books Went to War, Manning gives a chronological recount of how America decided that books were an important morale booster for the troops. The novel begins with Goebbels’ book burnings in Nazi Germany. Librarians, authors, and book lovers across the rest of the world were understandably disturbed by the incineration not only of books, but also of the ideas, stories, and freedoms they represented. Simultaneously, copies of Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, were shoved in the hands of every German citizen. The US troops being mustered at home prior to their entrance into the war were in sore need of morale-boosting recreational activities, a need that would only grow as the war continued. The government worked to organize a series of book collections for the troops, eventually commissioning books to be printed for the armed forces, embracing paperback technology and special editions. These books were widely regarded as lifesavers by the troops.
I found this novel quite interesting. Not only did I learn some information about World War II that I didn’t know before, but I also found the various efforts of the US to get the books to the troops to be intriguing. WWII has never been billed to me as a war of words and ideas, but this book made a satisfying case for that notion. Having recently read The Book Thief, I was already considering the implications of reading and words on those in the war, but this book taught me a lot more. I had never learned about the overwhelming amount of propaganda that Hitler utilized to subvert the ideals and morale of his enemies prior to even attacking them physically. He even helped the Japanese do this in the Pacific.
When Books Went to War managed to escape being dry or clinical, as it gave a lot of examples of the soldiers and authors speaking with one another and how it felt to have something to do in the time between the comparatively few moments of (unwanted) excitement. The pure boredom and loneliness of the troops was expressed well, and even the descriptions of the bureaucratic red tape that needed to be traversed in order to get books to the troops wasn’t too dense.
I did find that there were an excessive amount of examples of the point that the troops enjoyed the books. While I understand that the work was about the value of books to the troops, at times I felt like Manning was hammering that notion into my skull. There were also a few times when I felt the author was searching for content to populate the book, and threw in a few more descriptions of soldiers enjoying books to help it out.
In a certain sense, When Books Went to War also follows the emergence of the paperback and technology surrounding a line of smaller, cheaper books. The introduction of books and Armed Services Editions to the troops during WWII really inspired a reading revolution in the US, changing the minds of many Americans on what they should read, how they should read, and if they should read. It was a positive change, in my mind, even in the tragedy of war.
Overall, I would recommend this to any book lover with an interest in history. It’s very approachable and not too steeped in people and place names, like some historical works. It is also refreshing, to an avid reader, to see books become companions to those in dire need. For non-readers, I think it’s hard to imagine the escape a book can provide. Manning and the soldiers’ letters capture the power of that experience beautifully. I’ll call this a READ WITH CAUTION, as it is a solid read, but not everyone will be interested in WWII or a non-fiction work.